The Franco-Prussian War was a ten-month-long conflict between France and the states of Northern Germany; the war itself was pivotal in creating a united German state, and establishing Germany as one of Europe's most powerful nations. One of the forgotten outcomes of the war was the last smallpox outbreak to reach pandemic levels across Europe; this pandemic would be responsible for an estimated 500,000 deaths overall, and led to much stricter vaccination laws being implemented across much of the continent.
Prussian soldiers protected, but not civilians
In the years leading up to the war, the smallpox death rate among the Prussian civilian population was already more than 33 times higher than it was in the army. This was due to the army's introduction of mandatory revaccination upon enlistment in 1834, and, because of this policy, the Prussian army suffered just 238* smallpox deaths during the war. In contrast to this, vaccination was encouraged but not compulsory in the rest of Prussia, which meant that a large portion of the population were vulnerable to the disease.
Vaccination in France and the outbreak of the pandemic
While France had been the last European country to embrace widespread inoculation in the eighteenth century, vaccination was not met with as much suspicion. In particular, religious leaders generally welcomed vaccination and promoted its use among all children in the country, however the unstable political leadership and administrations of the mid-1800s failed to make the practice mandatory. The Napoleonic regime had introduced compulsory vaccination in the army in the 1810s, but this was not enforced in the decades that followed his defeat, and vaccination coverage among new recruits in the French army had fallen below fifty percent in 1869. Between 1862 and 1872 (but not including the war), smallpox was responsible for almost one fifth of all deaths in the French army; increased mobilization allowed the disease to spread even further and faster during the Franco-Prussian War.
From limited records during the war, we can see a stark contrast in the impact of smallpox on both sides, with individual garrisons of French soldiers recording more smallpox deaths than the entire German Army*. While just under 2,000 deaths were recorded among French prisoners of war, the impact of these outbreaks on nearby Prussian civilians was devastating; killing over 2.4 thousand and 2.6 thousand per million people in 1871 and 1872 respectively. When the epidemic reached other countries it had a severe effect on the smallpox death rates, particularly in countries without compulsory vaccination such as Belgium and the Netherlands. This pandemic caused countries such as England and Sweden to introduce enforced vaccination, where parents would be punished for not vaccinating their children, while Germany and the Netherlands brought in compulsory vaccination. Despite the pandemic taking thousands of lives in France (the figures given by the French minister of war were seen as being well below the actual number and were quickly disregarded by most scientists), the French government was slow to react with any meaningful legislation; compulsory revaccination for all new army recruits was introduced in 1888, while vaccination was not made compulsory for all civilians until 1902.
Smallpox deaths in the French and German armies during the Franco-Prussian War from July 1870 to May 1871
Number of smallpox deaths
French garrison in the town of Langres
French soldiers in the hospital in Bicetre, Paris
French prisoners of war
Total French Army (estimate from a French Minister of War)**
Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, United Kingdom (England, Scotland), Germany (Bavaria)
Survey time period
July 1870 to May 1871
*Total deaths among immobilized German soldiers was 162, giving a combined total of 459 for the entire German army. Of these 459 smallpox deaths, 238 were Prussians.
**Unofficial estimate given by a French Minister of War at the St Petersburg Statistical Congress in 1872. The author of the study does not agree with this estimate, and believes the real figure to be much higher - smallpox was responsible for 39 percent of all French army deaths between 1832 and 1859, and 19 percent of all deaths between 1862 and 1872 (excluding the year of the war).
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Royal College of Physicians. (December 31, 2018). Smallpox deaths in the French and German armies during the Franco-Prussian War from July 1870 to May 1871 [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved December 06, 2022, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1107919/smallpox-deaths-franco-prussian-war/
Royal College of Physicians. "Smallpox deaths in the French and German armies during the Franco-Prussian War from July 1870 to May 1871." Chart. December 31, 2018. Statista. Accessed December 06, 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1107919/smallpox-deaths-franco-prussian-war/
Royal College of Physicians. (2018). Smallpox deaths in the French and German armies during the Franco-Prussian War from July 1870 to May 1871. Statista. Statista Inc.. Accessed: December 06, 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1107919/smallpox-deaths-franco-prussian-war/
Royal College of Physicians. "Smallpox Deaths in The French and German Armies during The Franco-prussian War from July 1870 to May 1871." Statista, Statista Inc., 31 Dec 2018, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1107919/smallpox-deaths-franco-prussian-war/
Royal College of Physicians, Smallpox deaths in the French and German armies during the Franco-Prussian War from July 1870 to May 1871 Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1107919/smallpox-deaths-franco-prussian-war/ (last visited December 06, 2022)