The Balmis Expedition, officially called the Real Expedición Filantrópica de la Vacuna (Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition) was a three-year mission, from 1803 to 1806, to Spanish America and Asia led by Dr. Francisco Javier de Balmis with the aim of vaccinating millions against smallpox. Vaccination, a much safer way to prevent smallpox than older methods such as inoculation, had been introduced by the English physician Edward Jenner in 1798.
The expedition set off from A Coruña on 30 November 1803. It may be considered the first international healthcare expedition in history. Jenner himself wrote, "I don't imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this."
King Charles IV of Spain supported his royal doctor Balmis since his Infanta Maria Teresa, his daughter, had died from the illness. The expedition sailed on Maria Pita and carried 22 orphan boys (aged 8 to 10) as successive carriers of the virus; Balmis, a deputy surgeon, two assistants, two first-aid practitioners, three nurses, and Isabel Zendal Gómez, the rectoress of Casa de Expósitos, an A Coruña orphanage.
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. 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. 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.
Julia Alvarez wrote a fictional account of the expedition from the perspective of its only female member in Saving the World (2006).