‘It was a total invasion’: the virus that came back from the dead

In 1978, a photographer at a Birmingham lab fell ill with smallpox, prompting a race against time to prevent an epidemic. Does the outbreak carry lessons for Covid-19? Sally Williams reports

On Friday 11 August 1978, Janet Parker was getting ready for work when her head started to pound. She thought she was coming down with flu: she felt sore all over. But she had lots to do that day, so her husband, Joseph, drove her to Birmingham University, where she worked as a photographer in the medical school’s anatomy department.

At 40, Parker’s life was steady. She and Joseph, a Post Office telecoms engineer, lived in a modest house in Kings Norton, a quiet suburb of Birmingham. They had two dogs, and were close to her parents, who lived nearby. Parker was an only child, and her father worked for a small family firm in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter. She got into a grammar school and stayed on beyond 16, unlike many children from her background. Her first job was to photograph crime scenes for the West Midlands police, being summoned, often in the middle of the night, to photograph the aftermath of brutal murders, bodies with alarming injuries and blood-spattered walls.

Within days, 10 countries would be demanding holidaymakers from Britain have a vaccination before they could enter

Bakhshi received reports from the police and neighbours about people breaking quarantine. ‘You accepted it would happen’

Everyone in quarantine had their rubbish collected, food and newspapers delivered. Those who lost wages were compensated

The nurses’ PPE was a white cotton gown, cotton mask, theatre-style cap and disposable gloves. ‘It was pretty basic’

Some people can be ill, but they are so out of it, they are oblivious. Janet was aware, and that must have been horrible

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