A little research, and I found this novel, which I am now going to have to read:
Book review: Saving the World by Julia Alvarez
by Margot Harrison (03/29/06).
"In 1804, a Spanish army surgeon named Francisco Xavier Balmis set sail across the Atlantic on the ship Maria Pita. With him were 22 male orphans, two of whom carried the precious smallpox vaccine in lesions on their arms. The rest of the boys were to form the human chain of carriers needed, in this pre-refrigeration era, to bring the inoculation against a deadly plague to Puerto Rico, Mexico, South America and even the Philippines and China. At a time when the ravages of smallpox were familiar to all, Balmis could easily be forgiven for believing that he was "saving the world."
Balmis' expedition earned him a place in history. But what of the orphan boys who actually carried the vaccine? And what of the lone woman in the expedition, Isabel the orphanage rectoress? How did it feel to be drawn along by the tidal wave of Balmis' intensely altruistic -- and egotistical -- ambition?
That question is the germ of Saving the World, from the best-selling Middlebury author Julia Alvarez. The complex plot of her fifth novel is almost as ambitious as Balmis' expedition, which actually functions for Alvarez as a story within a story. The novel's framing and dominant narrative, set in present day, allows the author to draw parallels between AIDS and smallpox; between Balmis and modern do-gooders whose motives may be mixed. Confronting a world where "Every good [is] threaded through with, at best, dubious goods," Alvarez asks us, "What does it mean not to lose faith with what is grand?"" Read the rest of the review here.