Smallpox tragedy recalled in newspaper-university collaboration

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A tragic story of death, disease and a city in panic 40 years ago has been brought to life in a new four-part podcast produced by BirminghamLive and the Birmingham Mail.

In The Lonely Death of Janet Parker, veteran Mail journalist Andy Richards re-examines the remarkable story of how a young medical photographer caught smallpox in the University of Birmingham, becoming the last person in the world to die of the disease.

The four half-hour episodes were produced in collaboration with the staff and a student at Birmingham City University's broadcast radio course, and the project was three years in the making. All four episodes are published on podcast platform Acast in the run-up to the 40th anniversary of her death.

It will also be available on iTunes, and will be accompanied by a seven-part series in the Birmingham Mail's print edition, as well as a 'Shorthand' multimedia storytelling platform accessed via the BirminghamLive website.

BirminghamLive editor Marc Reeves said: "This is possibly the most ambitious and largest multi-platform media projects we've ever undertaken. This is such an important story that deserves re-telling, especially given the new perspectives and information uncovered by Andy through his dogged pursuit of this investigation."

Richards is the journalist behind the Mail's long-running campaign in support of the families of the victims of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. His research uncovered vital information that allowed the inquests to be re-opened last year and he has received several industry awards for his work.

The podcast tells the story of how Mrs Parker fell suddenly ill, but smallpox was only diagnosed after several days had elapsed. In the days that followed, thousands of people were given the smallpox vaccine, and dozens were tracked down and put in quarantine after being tracked down by police. 

Richards interviewed several of the people affected, including the ambulanceman who took her to hospital.

In a shocking twist, the podcast recounts how a person central to the case killed themselves in circumstances that raised serious questions about the behaviour of the media.

Richards said: "Use the word 'smallpox' in medical circles and you soon realise there is an abiding sensitivity over the virus even though it was banished 40 years ago. For instance, with social media and the issue of fake news in mind, we wanted to ask how health authorities would cope with a real outbreak of something equally nasty nowadays. They weren't keen to talk. 

Reeves said: "This has been a fascinating project, with many many challenges that Andy and the team have had to overcome. It would be nothing without the work of the amazing team at BCU and we've learned a great deal from the process. BirminghamLive is all about finding new ways to tell the stories of the city, and this is a great example of this."

The podcast can be accessed here.