We remember the story of this Galician woman, whose role was fundamental in the vaccination against smallpox of hundreds of thousands of people in the 19th century, and the subsequent eradication of the disease in the 1970s
The called its military deployment against the Covid-19 “Operation Balmis” paying tribute to Francisco Javier Balmis, a military doctor from Alicante, who undertook the great feat of mass vaccination against smallpox in Latin America and the Philippines in 1803.
The Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition, in addition to stopping the pandemic that was killing thousands of lives and protecting hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of those territories, laid the foundations for the eradication of smallpox, which finally took place in the 1970s.
But in addition to Balmis and the Catalan surgeon Josep Salvany, one of the key figures in the success of the mission was Isabel Zendal, who was in charge of caring for and accompanying the children who served as carriers of the vaccine from Spain to America and the Philippines.
She was born in 1773 in a Galician village and came from a poor family. Zendal soon moved to La Coruña, where she started to work in 1800 at the Casa de los Expósitos at the Charity Hospital. Her role there was to take care of the orphans between seven and fourteen years old in exchange for a very small wage. One of the reasons she did not hesitate to accept Balmis’s offer which was much better paid and embark on the Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition in 1803.
Her role would be to care for the 22 orphaned children between the ages of three and nine who had been inoculated with the smallpox vaccine and who would serve as carriers during the journey from Spain to Latin America and the Philippines aboard the corvette Maria Pita. Children who, because of their condition, no one wanted; except Isabel, who brought along her own son Benito, ten years old, whom she raised as a single mother.
Zendal spent nine years sailing and travelling to immunise hundreds of thousands of people in the first major universal vaccination campaign in human history. She was instrumental in the expedition and she risked her own health to care for the children night and day.
From La Coruña, she left for Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where she spent a month vaccinating. In January 1804 they left the Canary Islands and arrived in Puerto Rico on 9 February. Just one year later the expedition left for the Philippines, with a group of 26 children – among them Isabel’s own son – where they arrived in April 1805. Four years later, they returned to Acapulco, Mexico. Isabel and her son Benito settled in that country, in the city of Puebla, and never returned to Spain.
Most of the orphans were also adopted in Mexico, where their future was better than what they would have had in Spain – one of them even became a lawyer and law professor.
The great merit of the Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition of Balmis, besides accomplishing mass vaccination, was regulating its distribution. In all the territories they covered boards were created to properly conserve the vaccine and organise correct inoculation. In many cases, the priests kept a register of those vaccinated, parallel to baptism records.
Despite her extraordinary role in the expedition, it was decades before Isabel Zendal received the recognition she deserved. History records did not give her the credit she deserved as up until recent times 35 different versions of her name were recorded incorrectly, with variations such as Zendalla, Cendales, Gandalla and Sendales.
We had to wait until 1950, when Isabel Zendal was considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the first nurse in history to be sent on an international public health mission. On top of this international recognition the National Nursing Prize awarded by the Mexican Government has been awarding this prize in her honour since 1975. Zendal also has a monument and a street in La Coruña: a film about her, 22 Angels, directed by Miguel Bardem; she appears in novels such as A flor de piel (Javier Moro), Ángeles custodios (Almudena de Arteaga) and Los niños de la viruela (María Solar); a comic book, and she even has her own club.
However, both the feats of the Philanthropic Expedition – they vaccinated more than 250,000 people and established vaccination boards and preventive medicine in territories around the world – and Zendal’s role remain unknown to a large part of the population. A crisis like the one caused by coronavirus allows us to reflect on the past and recognise that it was also ingenuity, dedication and effort that allowed them to overcome complex situations.