Notable Individuals Who Survived Smallpox and One Who Didn’t: Featuring Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth I, Josef Stalin, and Pocahontas

In the fall of 1863, Washington, D.C. was in the midst of a smallpox outbreak. Accordingly, on November 18 of that year, the day before Abraham Lincoln was to deliver his Gettysburg Address, during his train ride from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg he told his private secretary and assistant, John Hay, that he felt weak. The next day, the day of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln developed a high fever and severe headache, and within a week, his skin erupted with scarlet blisters.

Lincoln’s doctors officially diagnosed the President’s illness as a mild form of smallpox. However, contemporary researchers suggest that Lincoln’s physicians knew that his case was much more serious (as based on the length and severity of his illness), but wanted to reassure the public that their president was not gravely ill. Fortunately, by the tenth day of Lincoln’s infirmity, his fever began to abate and his rash began to peel.

Had Lincoln succumbed to smallpox in November of 1863, the American Civil War, and the subsequent history of the United States, would certainly have played out very differently. But, we also might wonder whether Lincoln’s bout with smallpox affected the Gettysburg Address per se. Lincoln did edit the speech during his November 18 train-ride to Gettysburg, when he was already experiencing the onset of his smallpox. The next day, despite his progressing illness, Lincoln rode by horseback to the Gettysburg cemetery, and then waited two hours for famous orator Edward Everett to finish his protracted speech. Lincoln then delivered his much shorter and more noted and remembered speech. Some have suggested that the succinctness of the Gettysburg Address may have been due in part to how badly Lincoln was feeling as he edited and delivered it. At any rate, Lincoln is said to have spoken eloquently on the occasion. But, if the Gettysburg Address had been scheduled one or two days later than November 19, Lincoln almost certainly would have been too ill to deliver it, and one of the greatest speeches in American history might never have come to pass.


Lincoln’s famous sense of humor remained in evidence during his potentially fatal session with smallpox. In one account, Lincoln’s physician is said to have informed Lincoln of his smallpox diagnosis while the President was interviewing an office-seeker. After the office-seeker heard the physician tell Lincoln that the disease is highly contagious, the office-seeker made excuses and left immediately. Lincoln then remarked, “There is one good thing about this. Now I have something I can give everybody.”

Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603), traditionally viewed as one of England’s greatest monarchs, was another notable individual who survived smallpox. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn (executed by Henry two years after Elizabeth’s Birth) and the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. In 1562 she contracted what she at first believed to be a bad cold, but which eventually was revealed to be a severe case of smallpox, leaving her mildly, but permanently scarred.

If Elizabeth had died from smallpox in 1562, there likely would have been a civil war between Protestants and the Catholic supporters of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth’s half sister and predecessor on the English throne, Mary I, restored Roman Catholicism after the short-lived Protestant reign of her half-brother Edward VI. Mary’s re-establishment of Roman Catholicism was reversed after her death in 1558 by her younger half-sister and successor, Elizabeth I. The so-called Elizabethan Religious Settlement later evolved into today’s Church of England. And, Elizabeth did not persecute Catholics, thereby avoiding civil war.

During Elizabeth’s recovery, she made Robert Dudley (with whom she was romantically linked) protector of the kingdom. Dudley may be better known as the Earl of Leicester; who was raised to the peerage by Elizabeth in 1564.

Josef Stalin was yet another famous smallpox survivor, acquiring the disease at the age of seven. His face was badly scarred by the disease, and he had his later photographs retouched to make his pockmarks less apparent. What’s more, some accounts suggest that his disfigurement from smallpox was a cause of his later ruthlessness.

Earlier on the blog,we noted that the Inca emperor, Huayna Capac, and his son and heir, Ninan Cuyuchi, succumbed to smallpox, thereby indirectly enabling Francisco Pizarro to conquer the Inca Empire. 1 Pocahontas (about 1595-1617) was another, and more notable Native American, believed to have succumbed to smallpox. She was the daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Indian confederacy, and is probably best known for saving the life of English adventurer John Smith in 1607, and of the Virginia colony as well. In 1614 she married English tobacco farmer John Rolfe in Jamestown Virginia. The marriage of the couple, who were said to be in love, ensured peace between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Indians for several years. In 1616 she accompanied Rolfe to England, where she was received as a princess, visited with Queen Anne, and was formally presented to King James I. Then, in 1617, Pocahontas and Rolfe prepared to sail back to Virginia. However, before the ship had progressed very far down the Thames, she became gravely ill, probably from smallpox, and was taken ashore, where she died in Rolf’s arms. Rolfe eventually returned to Virginia and was killed in an Indian massacre in 1622, perhaps brought on by the deteriorating relations between the colonists and the Indians, following-on the death of Pocahontas.

The couple had one child, Thomas, who was born in Virginia in 1815, before the family left for England. Thomas was raised in England and returned to Virginia in 1635, where he lived as an Englishman and became a tobacco planter. His descendents include Edith Wilson, the wife of Woodrow Wilson.

Before concluding, it would probably be good to offer up a disclaimer of sorts. First, there are several different accounts of the circumstances under which Lincoln said “There is one good thing about this. Now I have something I can give everybody.” Second, there are different accounts of the events surrounding the deaths of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. What’s more, it is not entirely certain that Pocahontas actually died from smallpox.

1. Smallpox in the New World: Vignettes featuring Hernan Cortes, Francisco Pizarro, and Lord Jeffrey Amherst


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