Isabel Zendal

Who was Isabel Zendal?

Isabel Zendal and The Balmis Expedition

Isabel Zendal Gómez (born 1773) was a Spanish nurse from Galicia who took part in the Balmis Expedition (1803-1806, Real Expedición Filantrópica de la Vacuna), which took smallpox vaccination to South America and Asia.

On the 30th of November 1803 the First International Healthcare Expedition in history, known as the Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition, set sail from A Coruña.
22 orphaned children Isabel Zendal and doctor Francisco Javier Balmis, personal physician to Carlos IV, set off on a trip to the Americas, China and the Phillipines with the ambitious goal to immunise thousands of people against the dreaded disease.

The mission took the vaccine to the Canary Islands, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, the Philippines and China. The ship carried also scientific instruments and translations of the Historical and Practical Treatise on the Vaccine by Moreau de Sarthe to be distributed to the local vaccine commissions to be founded.

In Puerto Rico, the local population had already been inoculated from the Danish colony of Saint Thomas. In Venezuela, the expedition divided at La Guaira. José Salvany, the deputy surgeon, went toward today’s Colombia and the Viceroyalty of Peru (Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Bolivia). They took seven years and the toils of the voyage brought death to Salvany (Cochabamba, 1810). Balmis went to Caracas and later to Havana. The local poet Andrés Bello wrote an ode to Balmis.

Balmis Expedition

In New Spain, Balmis took 25 orphans to maintain the infection during the crossing of the Pacific. In the Philippines, they received help from the Catholic church, which was initially reluctant until Governor-General Rafael Aguilar made an example by vaccinating his five children. Balmis sent most of the expedition back to New Spain while he went on to China, where he visited Macau and Canton.

Balmis Expedition

On his way back to Spain in 1806, Balmis offered the vaccine to the British authorities in Saint Helena, despite the ongoing conflict between Spain and Great Britain

Today we know that smallpox has been the deadliest viral disease in the history of mankind. This Spanish nurse was the only woman on board and she became the backbone of the expedition.
The three-year expedition aimed to vaccinate millions of people against smallpox, and had the support of king Charles IV of Spain whose daughter had died of the disease.

It was, without doubt, one of the greatest healthcare feats in history.

In 1950 the World Health Organisation recognised her as the first nurse in history to take part in an international mission.

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