International Smallpox Project

Anna Dhody's picture

Dear Colleagues,


The Mütter Research Institute has embarked on an international, historical smallpox study. The Mütter Museum found five 19th-century vaccination kits in the collection with substantial scab and lymph material present. They were conveyed to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which obtained preliminary DNA results from three of the kits. Remarkably, the results suggest that an unknown orthopox may have been used in vaccination protocols in the 1870’s in the United States.

In collaboration with CDC and McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Centre and with the permission of the World Health Organization, we have transferred the scab and lymph samples from the CDC to McMaster for DNA analysis. Hendrik Poinar, PhD, and his team have already recovered genomic material from both scabs and from swabbing the instruments themselves! The next phase is to determine the genome of the unknown pox viruses used in these vaccination kits and other components of the kits.

As a result of this research, we have concluded the need for a comprehensive DNA database of ancient and historic smallpox and orthopox samples. I am writing to ask your participation in this project. We need additional samples of ancient or historical smallpox or orthopox material from around the world. We hope to create a comprehensive DNA library of pox (and other) virus DNA in order to better understand the origins and uses of various viruses for variolation and vaccination and for those containing Variola virus, to better understand the evolution and migration of the pathogen linked with various outbreaks in the US and Europe. Depending on the type of specimens, their age, and storage, non-destructive sampling may be an option. All contributing institutions will receive co-authorship on resulting publications.

If your museum or collection is in possession of any possible pox material and is willing to participate in our project, please contact me at or at (215)399-2302. I can provide further details, including our white paper,  at that time.


Thank you very much for your time.




Anna N. Dhody

Curator, Mütter Museum

& Director, Mütter Research Institute