Smallpox Scare At Virginia Historical Society Triggered By Old Piece Of Skin

05/20/2011 07:57 am ET | Updated Nov 16, 2011
  • Wall Street Journal

A museum dedicated to Virginia state history was briefly transformed into a science laboratory when federal health inspectors became concerned that a 135-year-old scab of human skin might release the deadly disease smallpox.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent two investigators to the Virginia Historical Society to look at the dried fleck of human remains, which was fastened to a letter dated 1876 written from a son to his father that had been included in an exhibit featuring curious items in the museum's collection, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The CDC investigators hurried to get the small, crumbling fragment of skin to an Atlanta lab in March, where tests confirmed it contained the smallpox vaccine, but not the disease itself.

In the late 1800s, people inserted diseased scabs under their skin to build up antibodies to smallpox, the Journal noted.

Virginia Historical Society officials said a medical historian told them years ago that the scab was harmless, but the CDC checked out the artifact after receiving a tip because scabs can stay infectious for decades.

The scab is now stored in a medium-security CDC laboratory.