Birmingham smallpox outbreak remembered

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A graduate of the Birmingham School of Media’s MA Radio and Audio Production course has recently completed a major investigation into the world’s last recorded smallpox death – which took place here in Birmingham.

Audio producer Lucy Ryan created a series of podcasts, in association with the Birmingham Mail, about the death of Janet Parker.

Although Parker died of smallpox on 11th September 1978, the case has still not been fully explained and the exact circumstances of her death remain a mystery.

An article examining the mystery of Parker’s death; Evening Mail, November 1979.

The virus is thought to have escaped from the smallpox laboratory in the University of Birmingham’s Medical School, which was located directly under the office where Parker worked as a photographer.

The story, titled ‘The Lonely Death of Janet Parker’, also discusses the work of virologist Professor Henry Bedson, who ran the laboratory and ultimately took his own life as a result of the outbreak.

Lucy created the four-part series to mark the 40th anniversary of Parker and Bedson’s tragic deaths.

According to Marc Reeves, the Birmingham Mail and Birmingham Live editor, the investigation was “possibly the most ambitious and largest multi-platform media projects we’ve ever undertaken”.

Journalist Andy Richards spent three years researching the story and helped to arrange a wide range of interviews. These included first person accounts and expert analysis which explored how the infection took place and whether or not it could have been prevented. Notable contributors include author Mark Pallen, Sir Hugh Pennington and Brian Escott Cox QC.

Although smallpox has now been completely eradicated, the virus is still held in two medical laboratories. The series asks the question, could there ever be another outbreak?

Hear each episode below.

Special thanks to Andy Richards and Marc Reeves from the Birmingham Mail for their assistance. Visit BirminghamLive to learn more about this fascinating case.

The Lonely Death of Janet Parker, Episode 1: Variola Major

A brilliant Birmingham professor is driven to take his own life after discovering smallpox has leaked from his research lab, fatally infecting a colleague. Contributors: Andy Richards,
Mark Pallen, Sir Hugh Pennington, Brian Escott Cox QC, John Richmond. Audio Producer: Lucy Ryan, Executive Producer: Sam Coley, Narrator: Dermot O’Sullivan, Voice Actors: Dave Hill, Peter Smith, Gregory Leadbetter.

The Lonely Death of Janet Parker, Episode 2: EG34B

Thousands are vaccinated as fear grips the city and the world holds it breath amid fears that the virus may spread – those caught up in the drama recall their experiences. Contributors: Andy Richards, Mark Pallen, Sir Hugh Pennington, Reg Wickett, Malcolm Tomlinson, John Richmond, Malcolm Tomlinson, Julie Brown, Paul Hooper, Ian Mean, Dr. J Sanghera. Audio Producer: Lucy Ryan, Executive Producer: Sam Coley, Narrator: Dermot O’Sullivan, Voice Actors: Dave Hill, Peter Smith, Gregory Leadbetter.

The Lonely Death of Janet Parker, Episode 3: Isolation

The last days of victim Janet Parker and her dreadful death in an isolation hospital – effectively cut off from the world. Contributors: Andy Richards, Sir Hugh Pennington
Mark Pallen, Sue Bignell, Brian Escott Cox QC. Audio Producer: Lucy Ryan, Executive Producer: Sam Coley, Narrator: Dermot O’Sullivan, Voice Actors: Dave Hill, Peter Smith, Gregory Leadbetter.

The Lonely Death of Janet Parker, Episode 4: Aftermath

How Janet Parker caught smallpox is Birmingham’s biggest mystery – we offer the most plausible solution yet. Contributors: Andy Richards, Mark Pallen, Brian Escott Cox QC, Sir Hugh Pennington. Audio Producer: Lucy Ryan, Executive Producer: Sam Coley, Narrator: Dermot O’Sullivan, Voice Actors: Dave Hill, Peter Smith, Gregory Leadbetter.

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