A Woman to Know: Isabel Zendal Gómez

I don't imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this. — Edward Jenner

I don't imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this. — Edward Jenner

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1802, as smallpox ravaged the world and rulers debated how to transfer the revolutionary new vaccine, a Spanish scientist proposed an unsettling — but effective — mode of transport: send “living vaccines” on a voyage around the globe. Francisco Xavier Balmis had seen firsthand the devastation smallpox wrought; his most high-profile patient, King Carlos IV, lost both a daughter and a brother to the disease. He was eager to find a way to halt the spread and share the vaccine widely.

When the king decreed vaccination the most important issue of his rule, Balmis began thinking of how to inoculate people in Spain and then send them on this voyage, where they could act as living carriers of the world-saving treatment.

At the time, Isabel Zendal Gómez was a 30-year-old nurse running an orphanage in A Coruña, the busiest port city in Galicia. Balmis approached her with a proposition: they could vaccinate a group of young boys in her care, then put them on a ship and have them sail around the world. The journey would be risky, he acknowledged, but the even riskier thing was the vaccine itself: at the time, no one knew exactly how the orphans would react, and Balmis knew they needed near-constant monitoring to ensure the “vaccine” inside them wouldn’t come to harm.

In exchange for assembling the group of test patients, Isabel asked the scientist to grant her one condition: allow her to also get the vaccine alongside her boys. She said she wanted to join them on the journey and care for them as they traveled to South America and Asia, so they wouldn’t be alone in this enormous responsibility and perilous undertaking. Balmis agreed.

So in 1803, the young nurse and the collection of orphans set off on their historic voyage. Isabel brought her own son, 9-year-old Benito, and the group set sail. The plan was to inoculate the orphans in rounds once aboard the ship, so that the vaccine would arrive “fresh” at each of its destinations (to think now of how carefully we manage the coronavirus vaccine in its subzero refrigerated tubes …).

Over three years of near-constant travel, the group visited the Canary Islands, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, the Phillippines, China and other countries. Once on land, doctors would extract the pus from the orphans’ sores, using it to inject healthy people and prevent the spread of the disease. Isabel cared for the young patients, monitoring their progress, escorting them to each new destination and soothing their fears as the journey progressed.

Turns out, the scientist’s plan worked. Eventually, the Balmis Expedition would inoculate some 500,000 people, effectively saving the lives of millions. As Edward Jenner, the smallpox vaccine engineer himself, later said, “I don't imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this.”

But not much is known of Isabel after 1809 — when the ship stopped in Acapulco on its return trip back to Europe, she disembarked with her son and set up a new life for herself in Mexico, waving goodbye to the other boys she’d mothered along the way. Today, she’s honored as an icon of nursing, and the Isabel Zendal Hospital in Spain — now fighting on the frontlines of Europe’s coronavirus crisis — is named for the courageous caregiver.

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