Searching for Sitala Mata, Eradicating Smallpox in India

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In 1975, a female African American doctor journeys to rural India to help stamp out the last vestiges of smallpox on the planet.

Cornelia E. Davis MD, was a pioneering African American woman doctor fresh out of pediatric residency. The World Health Organization hired Davis to work in its landmark smallpox eradication program. Davis traveled to India, where she scoured the countryside for the last remnants of the brutal, deadly disease. Connie didn’t allow entrenched sexism, or caste taboos to deter her from her fascinating mission. She tracked smallpox through the Thar desert on camelback and across volatile Indo-Bangladeshi borders. She negotiated with smugglers and fakirs. She met Mother Theresa. She climbed to the base camp of Mount Everest. Finally, her symbolic search for Sitala Mata, the Hindu smallpox goddess, came to a positive conclusion. An international certification team declared smallpox eradicated in India.

 

To this day, smallpox is the only disease that’s been completely wiped out. Davis played a role in stopping a pestilence that’s dogged humanity for thousands of years. Searching for Sitala Mata is the story of how one brave woman’s simple desire to pay it forward had historic and positive ramifications worldwide.

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