Balmis Expedition

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Expedition by Balmis and his collaborators to America
Detail of expedition's routes in The Philippines
Balmis balcony in the Domus museum in La Coruña (Spain), a tribute to the people of the expedition
Monument in A Coruña in honor of the orphan children who took part of the expedition.
Historical marker installed in the Philippines to commemorate the arrival of the expedition in the Philippine Islands.

The Balmis Expedition, officially called the Real Expedición Filantrópica de la Vacuna (Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition) was a Spanish healthcare mission that lasted from 1803 to 1806, led by Dr Francisco Javier de Balmis, which vaccinated millions of inhabitants of Spanish America and Asia against smallpox. Vaccination, that is inoculation with cowpox material, is a much safer way to prevent smallpox than older methods such as variolation, inoculation with smallpox material, which ran the risk of itself spreading smallpox. Vaccination had been pioneered by the English physician Edward Jenner in 1798.


The expedition set off from A Coruña in northwest Spain on 30 November 1803. It may be considered the first international healthcare expedition in history.[1][2] Jenner himself wrote, "I don't imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this."[3]

King Charles IV of Spain supported his royal doctor Balmis since his Infanta Maria Teresa, his daughter, had died from the illness. The expedition sailed on Maria Pita and carried 22 orphan boys (aged 3 to 10) as successive carriers of the virus; Balmis, a deputy surgeon, two assistants, two first-aid practitioners, three nurses, and Isabel Zendal Gómez, the rectoress of Casa de Expósitos, an A Coruña orphanage.[4]

The mission took the vaccine to the Canary Islands, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, the Philippines and China.[5] The ship carried also scientific instruments and translations of the Historical and Practical Treatise on the Vaccine by Moreau de Sarthe to be distributed to the local vaccine commissions to be founded.[1]

In Puerto Rico, the local population had already been inoculated from the Danish colony of Saint Thomas. In Venezuela, the expedition divided at La Guaira. José Salvany, the deputy surgeon, went toward today's Colombia and the Viceroyalty of Peru (Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Bolivia). They took seven years and the toils of the voyage brought death to Salvany (Cochabamba, 1810). Balmis went to Caracas and later to Havana. The local poet Andrés Bello wrote an ode to Balmis. In New Spain, Balmis took 25 orphans to maintain the infection during the crossing of the Pacific. In the Philippines, they received help from the Catholic church, which was initially reluctant until Governor-General Rafael Aguilar made an example by vaccinating his five children. Balmis sent most of the expedition back to New Spain while he went on to China, where he visited Macau and Canton.[6] On his way back to Spain in 1806, Balmis offered the vaccine to the British authorities in Saint Helena, despite the ongoing conflict between Spain and Great Britain.[1]

Julia Alvarez wrote a fictional account of the expedition from the perspective of its only female member in Saving the World (2006).[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c Franco-Paredes, Carlos; Lammoglia, Lorena; Santos-Preciado, José Ignacio (2005). "The Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to Bring Smallpox Vaccination to the New World and Asia in the 19th Century". Clinical Infectious Diseases. 41 (9): 1285–1289. doi:10.1086/496930. JSTOR 4463512. PMID 16206103.
  2. ^ La Coruña: A progressive city Archived 2004-12-09 at the Wayback Machine, historical information as part the official web site for the city of La Coruña. Verified availability 2005-03-03.
  3. ^ Tarrago, Rafael E. (2001). "The Balmis-Salvany Smallpox Expedition: The First Public Health Vaccination Campaign in South America". Perspectives in Health. Vol. 6 no. 1. Pan-American Health Organization. Retrieved 27 November 2020.
  4. ^ McIntyre JWR, Stuart HC (1999). "Medicine in Canada: Smallpox and its control in Canada". Canadian Medical Association Journal. 161 (12): 1543–1547. PMC 1230874. PMID 10624414.
  5. ^ de Romo, Ana Cecilia Rodríguez (1997). Inoculation in the 1799 smallpox epidemic in Mexico: Myth or real solution?. Antilia:Spanish Journal of History of Natural Sciences and Technology.
  6. ^ Ocampo, Ambeth R. (6 December 2017). "Vaccine expedition in early 1800s". Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved 7 December 2017.

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