Isabel Zendal she was a forgotten heroine who gave her youth to Spain and science. Immersed in the eighteenth century, this nurse and single mother decided to leave her homeland to head to the The new World as part of the Vaccine Philanthropic Expedition. Easy to summarize along a few lines, but difficult to understand in an age where women were still struggling to make their way into society.
Along a journey I longed for eradicate smallpox in all the recesses of the limping Spanish Empire, the Galician was in charge of the care of the children inoculated with the virus; a task that earned him his love and a place in history
But, as often happens in our country, the story of this heroine (one who did not fight with the sword, but with hard work) had remained there until now, in the history books. Forgotten and almost lost. These days, however, it has once again been illuminated by the spotlights of the present day after the president of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, has inaugurated the Isabel Zendal epidemic hospital. A center that, beyond the controversy that still generates between the different political parties, recalls the first woman to participate in an international health expedition.
To the New World
As explained by the doctor in History Susana María Ramírez Martín In an article about this nurse prepared for the Royal Academy of History, we know little about the childhood of Isabel Zendal Gómez. Just that he was born in Santa Marina de Parada, in La Coruña, back in 1773 and who had a somewhat turbulent childhood. “During the smallpox epidemic of 1786 he lost his mother and had to leave a family home with few resources to go to work, “explains the expert.
When he added a score of springs behind his back his son was born, Benito Velez, center of her life because she was a single mother.
The death of his parents, «quasi poor of solemnityAccording to their respective death certificates, they indicate that Isabel did not come from a wealthy family. But that condition did not end her illusion of becoming a nurse and, already in 1800, of entering to work as Rector in an inclusive destined to take care of abandoned children. That would be his fate in life, and he would carry it as a flag in the following years, as the “Isabel Zendal Association” recounts well in the many articles about the character that they host on their website.
This is how his life went when, in 1803, Carlos IV, who had lost a daughter to smallpox, ordered a convoy to leave the Peninsula to spread the vaccine against this disease throughout all overseas territories. The result was the Royal Vaccine Philanthropic Expedition, which can be considered as the first humanitarian mission in history. There was only one problem … how to move the sample? The answer came from the hand of the Spanish doctor Francisco Javier Balmis, at the forefront of this adventure, and consisted of transporting the serum into 22 living children. To be more specific, orphans from La Coruña.
This is how the «Gaceta de Madrid» narrated it:
“There are several doctors commissioned, and they have 22 children, who being successively inoculated arm by arm during the navigation, they will keep the bovine fluid alive and without alteration. For this reason, other means of driving it have not been omitted, thus for greater safety, as well as to experience which ones are to be preferred over long distances and in different climates.
Hard expedition and sad end
Although at first the participation of a woman in the expedition was not considered, she changed her mind shortly after. It was thought, and not without reason, that children would need a figura maternal to give them confidence during the journey.
«On October 14, 1803, a month and a half before the departure, Francisco Xavier Balmis, her director, hired her with a salary equal to that enjoyed by men in their training and duties, three thousand reales for their habilitation and a salary of five hundred pesos per year. He was the last expeditionary to join the humanitarian convoy, “adds the expert. This is how his adventure in the corvette began «Maria Pita», that left the port of La Coruña on November 30, 1803.
As a nurse, Isabel Zendal took care of the children both on land and at sea. She cared for them, cleaned them, helped them clean up, and ultimately made sure that their journey was as pleasant as possible. «The rector had specific and exclusive functions: take care, accompany, entertain Y serene to the children during the trip ”, adds Ramírez.
Among the smallest, by the way, was his son Benito, which served as “Living receptacle”, as the media of the time pointed out. The Coruñesa did her job well, as she received praise from some superiors who, in the documents, defined her as «selfless rector», «mother of the galleguitos” Y “woman of integrity».
After passing, among other regions, through Canary Islands, Puerto Rico, Caracas O Mexico, Isabel Zendal left in 1805 for the Pacific. Now, with twenty-six Mexican children.
After the last few trips, he decided to stay in Mexico to spend the rest of his days. There he worked in a hospice Puebla de los Angeles with your little one. «About the end of his life we know little. The last we know of her is that in 1811 she continued to request a pension of 3 reales a month to which her son was entitled because he was one of the number children who came with the vaccine and the Royal Cajas de Puebla where it was not paid. he was living. The date and place of his death are unknown ”, concludes the doctor in History.