Janet Parker (March 1938 – 11 September 1978) was a British medical photographer who became the last person to die from smallpox. She was exposed to the virus as a result of laboratory accident at the University of Birmingham Medical School. Parker was born in Birmingham, UK, and worked as a medical photographer in the Anatomy Department of the University of Birmingham Medical School, where she was accidentally exposed to a strain of smallpox virus that was grown in a research laboratory on the floor below the Anatomy Department. Her death led to the suicide of Henry Bedson, then Head of the Microbiology Department.
An official government inquiry into Parker's death was led by R.A. Shooter, whose report was debated in the British Parliament. Parker's death triggered radical changes in how dangerous pathogens were studied in the UK. The University was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive for breach of Health and Safety legislation but was cleared in Court.
The laboratory at Birmingham was conducting research on variants of smallpox virus known as "whitepox viruses", which were considered to be a threat to the success of the World Health Organisation's smallpox eradication programme.
At the time of her death, Parker lived in Burford Park Road, Kings Norton, Birmingham, UK, and was employed at the University of Birmingham Medical School. She often worked in a darkroom above a laboratory where research on live smallpox viruses was being conducted. The viruses probably spread through a service duct that connected the two floors. On 11 August 1978, Parker (who had been vaccinated against smallpox in 1966) fell ill; she had a headache and pains in her muscles. She developed spots that were thought to be a benign rash. Ms Parker was admitted to East Birmingham (now Heartlands) Hospital on 24 August and diagnosed (by Professor Alasdair Geddes and Dr. Thomas Henry Flewett) as being infected with Variola major, the most lethal strain of smallpox. The next day, smallpox virus was confirmed by electron microscopy on fluid from her rash. Janet Parker was transferred to Catherine-de-Barnes, (then an isolation hospital) where she died of smallpox on 11 September 1978. Many people had close contact with Parker before she was admitted, but only her mother contracted the disease. Parker's mother, Hilda Witcomb (née Linscott)  survived, but her father, Frederick Witcomb, died aged 77 following a cardiac arrest when visiting Parker in the hospital. The other close contacts, which included two Biomedical Scientists, from the Birmingham Regional Virus Laboratory based at East Birmingham Hospital, were released from quarantine in Catherine-de-Barnes on 10 October 1978.
On 6 September 1978, Professor Henry Bedson, the son of Sir Samuel Phillips and the head of the medical microbiology department, committed suicide. He cut his throat in the garden shed at his home and died at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham a few days later. His suicide note read "I am sorry to have misplaced the trust which so many of my friends and colleagues have placed in me and my work." In 1977, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had told Henry Bedson that his application for his laboratory to become a Smallpox Collaborating Centre had been rejected. This was partly because of safety concerns; the WHO wanted as few laboratories as possible handling the virus.
Over a year later, in October 1979, the university authorities fumigated the Medical School East Wing.
A similar outbreak occurred in 1966, when Tony McLennan, who was also a medical photographer and worked in the same laboratory later used by Janet Parker, contracted smallpox. He had a milder form of the disease, which was not diagnosed for eight weeks. He was not quarantined and there were at least twelve further cases in the West Midlands.
The declassified official Report of the investigation into the cause of the 1978 Birmingham smallpox occurrence (Shooter report) noted that Bedson failed to inform the authorities of changes in his research that could have affected safety. Shooter discovered that the Dangerous Pathogens Advisory Group inspected the laboratory on two occasions and each time recommended that the smallpox research be continued there, despite the fact that the facilities at the laboratory fell far short of those required by law. Several of the staff at the laboratory had received no special training. Bedson even allowed a school-leaver to work with smallpox after only nine months as a trainee technician. Inspectors from the World Health Organisation had told Bedson that the physical facilities at the laboratory did not meet WHO standards, but had nonetheless only recommended a few changes in laboratory procedure. Bedson lied to the WHO about the volume of work handled by the laboratory, telling them that it had progressively declined since 1973, when in fact it had risen dramatically as Bedson desperately tried to finish his work before the laboratory closed. Janet Parker had not been vaccinated recently enough to protect her against smallpox.
The report concluded that Parker had probably been infected by a strain of smallpox called Abid (named after one of its earlier victims, a three-year-old Pakistani boy), which was being handled in the smallpox laboratory during 24–25 July 1978. The virus had travelled in air currents up a service duct from the laboratory below, to a room in the Anatomy Department that was used for telephone calls. On 25 July, Parker had spent much more time there than usual ordering photographic materials because the financial year was about to end.
On 1 December 1978 the Health and Safety Executive announced their intention to prosecute the university for breach of safety legislation. The case was heard in November 1979 and the university was found not guilty of causing Parker's death. In August 1981, following a formal claim for damages made by the trade union Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs in 1979, Parker's husband, Joseph, was awarded £25,000 in compensation.
In popular fiction
The Parker case provides a major plot element in the Patricia Cornwell novel Unnatural Exposure. The killer, an apparently respectable microbiologist, turns out to have been a junior researcher at the medical school at the time of Parker's death, and to have been scapegoated for the accident after Professor Bedson's suicide. Nursing a grudge over her blighted career, she develops a new strain of poxvirus from material stolen from the Birmingham lab, and attempts to start an epidemic.
The case has also been briefly mentioned in the TV series House in the episode "A Pox on Our House". Janet Parker was mentioned by name in the episode, while Bedson's subsequent suicide was referenced.
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