The Strange Story of the Fight with the Small-Pox.

By Thomas Frost

When, at the present day, we hear of an epidemic of small-pox in some town where the practice of vaccine inoculation has been neglected, it is both instructive and consolatory to turn our thoughts back to the time, before the introduction of that practice, when that horrible disease caused ten per cent, of all the deaths in excess of those occurring in the ordinary course of nature. This statement, startling as it may seem to the present generation, may be verified by reference to the annual bills of mortality of the city of London. This fearful state of things had prevailed in England from the time of the Plantagenets, when, in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, a gleam of light was flashed upon the medical darkness of western Europe from the east. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writing from Adrianople to a lady friend in the spring of 1717, flashed that light in the concluding portion of her letter, as follows:—

“Apropos of distempers, I am going to tell you a thing that will make you wish yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless, by the invention of ingrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women who make it their business to perform the operation every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox; they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together), the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lie upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens four or five veins.

... Every year thousands undergo this operation; and the French ambassador says pleasantly, that they take the small-pox here by way of diversion, as they take the waters in other countries. There is no example of any one that has died in it; and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment, since I intend to try it on my own little son.”

This intention she carried into practice, and on her return to England made great exertions to introduce inoculation into general use. The medical profession opposed it so strongly, however, that for many years the horrible distemper continued to rage unchecked. Such announcements as the following were, in consequence, not unfrequent in the newspapers:—

“WHEREAS the Town of Bury St. Edmund’s, where the General Quarter Sessions of the Peace of that Division are usually held, is now afflicted with the Small-Pox, for which reason it might be of exceeding ill consequence to the Country in General to hold the Sessions there; This is, therefore, to acquaint the PUBLIC that the next General Quarter Sessions of the Peace will be held at the sign of the Pickerel in Ixworth, on Monday next.

Cocksedge, Clerk of the Peace.”

Later on in the same year (1744) an advertisement appeared, signed by the clergy, churchwardens, and medical practitioners of the town, stating that “there were only twenty-one persons then lying ill of the small-pox.” Scarcely a week passed, in those days, without advertisements appearing of the number of cases of the disease in certain towns. Careful study of a large number of these announcements shows, however, that it was only thought desirable to advertise when the epidemic was thought to be abating, or when it had abated. Take the following, for instance:—

“Nov. 4, 1755.

“Upon the strictest Inquiry made of the present state of the SMALL-POX in Beccles, it appears to be in eleven houses, and no more, and that the truth may be constantly known, the same will be weekly advertised alternately in the Ipswich and Norwich papers by us,

Tho. Page, Rector.
Osm. Clarke and Is. Blowers, Churchwardens.”

In the following year we find it announced that, “upon a strict inquiry made by the clerks through their respective parishes, delivered to us, and attested by them, there is but six persons now afflicted with the small-pox in this town,”—to wit, Colchester—and this statement is signed by three ministers and six medical practitioners. In the Ipswich Journal of Jan. 22nd, 1757, the following appeared:—“There will be no fair this year at Bildestone on Ash Wednesday, as usual, by reason of the small-pox being in several parishes not far off.”

The practice of inoculation, though still frowned upon by a large proportion of the medical profession, was growing at this time, as appears from the following advertisement:—

Colchester, May 12, 1762.

“The Practice of bringing people out of the country into this town to be inoculated for the Small-pox being very prejudicial to the town in many respects, but especially to the Trade thereof, and as by this practice the distemper may be continued much longer in the town than it otherwise would, in all probability, it is thought proper by some of the principal inhabitants and traders in the town, that this public notice should be given that they are determined to prosecute any person or persons whomsoever, that shall hereafter bring into this town, or who shall receive into their houses in the town as lodgers, any person or persons for that purpose, with the utmost severity that the law will permit.... But that they might not be thought discouragers of a practice so salutary and beneficial to mankind, as inoculation is found to be, which encourages great numbers to go into the practice, the persons who have caused this public notice to be given have no objection to surgeons carrying on the practice in houses properly situated for the purpose.”

The “great numbers” of persons referred to in this notice as having “gone into the practice” of inoculation for the small-pox appear to have been chiefly old women, as in Turkey, and by some of these it was carried on until the passing of the Vaccination Act in 1840. Five guineas was the fee advertised in the Ipswich Journal in 1761 for performing the operation by Robert Sutton, an operator in Kent, who announced that he had “only met with but one accident out of the many hundreds he has had under his cure.”

The prevalence of this hideous disease in the last century, and the dread which it inspired, is curiously attested by the frequency with which advertisements for servants, etc., appeared in the newspapers, in which there was an express stipulation that applicants must have had the small-pox. A housemaid or footman whose face bore the traces of this disease would not, at the present day, find their appearance much in their favour: but the following selection of advertisements, culled from the Ipswich Journal and the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, show that in the last century the marks would increase their chances of obtaining employment very considerably. The dates range from 1755 to 1781, and such announcements might be increased to any extent.

“A Three Years’ APPRENTICE is wanted to use the Sea between Manningtree and London, whose age is between 18 and 25 years, and has had the Small-pox. Such a one, inquiring of Mr. Wm. Leach, at Mistley Thorne, in Essex, will hear of good encouragement.”

“WANTED, about Michaelmas, as Coachman, in a gentleman’s family, who can drive four horses, and ride postillion well. A Single Man, must have had the Small-pox, and know how to drive in London. Such an one, who can be well recommended, by giving a description of himself, his age, and abilities, in a letter directed to A. B., at Mr. J. Kendall’s, in Colchester, may hear of a very good place.”

“WANTED, a Journeyman Baker, that is a good workman, and has had the Small-Pox. Such a person may hear of a good place by applying to Mr. John Stow, at Sudbury, or to the Printer of this paper.”

“Wanted an Apprentice to an eminent Surgeon in full practice in the county of Suffolk. If he has not had the Small-Pox, it is expected he will be inoculated for it, before he enters on business.—Enquire of John Fox, at Dedham, Essex.”


Colchester, June 15th, 1762.

“Wanted immediately, a Stout Lad as an Apprentice to a Currier. If he can write it will be the more agreeable. Inquire further of Eleanor Onyon. N.B.—If he has not had the Small-pox, he need not apply.”

“WANTED for a gentleman that lives most part of the year in London, A Genteel Person, between 28 and 40 years of age, that has had the Small-pox, to be as Companion and Housekeeper. One that has been brought up in a genteel, frugal and handsome manner, either a Maid or Widow, so they have no incumbrances.”

“WANTED, a NURSEMAID. None need apply who cannot bring a good character from their last place; and has had the Small-pox.”

“WANTS a place in a large or small family, in town or country, a YOUNG MAN, who is well versed in the different branches of a Gardener, has had the Small-pox, and can write a good hand.”

“WANTED, in a large family, a STOUT WOMAN, about 30, single, or a widow without children, who has had the Small-pox, to take care of a lusty child, under a year old. Her character must be unexceptionable, and by no means a fashionable dresser, and lived in families of credit. Any person answering this description may enquire of Mrs. Mercer, at the Star and Garter, Andover, and be further informed.”

It was about the time when the last of these advertisements appeared that Jenner commenced his inquiries concerning the prophylactic virtues of cow-pox, though nearly twenty years elapsed before they were sufficiently advanced to enable him to make the results known. His idea of using vaccine inoculation to bring about the total extinction of small pox was scouted by those of his professional brethren to whom he mentioned it, and we learn from one of his biographers that, at the outset, “both his own observation and that of other medical men of his acquaintance proved to him that what was commonly called cow-pox was not a certain preventive of small-pox. But he ascertained by assiduous inquiry and personal investigation that cows were liable to various kinds of eruption on their teats, all capable of being communicated to the hands of the milkers; and that such sores when so communicated were all called cow-pox.” But when he had traced out the nature of these various diseases, and ascertained which of them possessed the protective virtue against small-pox, he was again foiled by learning that in some cases when what he now called the true cow-pox broke out among the cattle on a dairy farm, and had been communicated to the milkers, they subsequently had small-pox. These repeated failures perplexed him, but at the same time stimulated, instead of discouraging him. He conceived the idea that the virus of cow-pox might undergo some change which deprived it of its protective power, while still enabling it to communicate a disease to human beings. Following up the inquiry from this point, he at length discovered that the virus was capable of imparting protection against small-pox only in a certain condition of the pustule.

He was now prepared to submit his theory to the test of experiment, but it was not until 1796 that he had the opportunity. A dairymaid, who had contracted cow-pox from one of her employer’s cows, afforded the matter, and Jenner introduced it into two incisions in the arms of a boy about eight years of age. The disease thus transferred ran its ordinary course without any ill effects, and the boy was afterwards inoculated with the virus of small pox, which produced no effect. The disappearance of the cow-pox from the dairies in the neighbourhood of his country practice in Gloucestershire prevented him from making further experiments; and when he visited London for that purpose, he had the mortification of finding that no one could be found who would consent to be operated upon. It was not until 1798 that this obstacle was overcome, and then, the results of the earlier experiments having been confirmed by a series of vaccinations, followed by inoculation for small-pox several months afterwards without effect, Jenner made his discovery public.

In the following year, vaccine inoculation began to spread, the practice being taken up by many of Jenner’s friends, including several who were not in the medical profession. But, like inoculation for the small-pox, when introduced by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,—like all innovations on established practices, indeed,—vaccination received for many years after its introduction the most violent opposition. Just as inoculation for small-pox had been denounced from the pulpit and in medical treatises as a “diabolical operation” and a wicked interference with the designs of Providence, so did a certain Dr. Squirrel denounce vaccination as an attempt to change “the established laws of nature.” The most absurd stories were circulated of the effects alleged to have followed vaccination. “A lady,” it is stated by Mr. Bettany, “complained that since her daughter had been vaccinated she coughed like a cow, and had grown hairy all over her body; and in one country district it was stated that vaccination had been discontinued there, because those who had been inoculated in that manner bellowed like bulls.” There were even doctors who pretended to detect resemblances to bovine visages in the countenances of children, produced, as they did not hesitate to declare, by vaccination! Self-interest may have had as much to do as prejudice in prompting the opposition of the profession. Many practitioners derived a considerable portion of their income from fees for inoculation for small-pox. Sutton, as we have seen, charged five guineas for the operation, and advertised himself in many provincial newspapers; and the income of Dr. Woodville, at one time physician to the Small-Pox Hospital, is said to have sunk in one year from a thousand pounds to a hundred on his adopting the practice of vaccination.

Notwithstanding the prejudice and interested antagonism to which the new practice was exposed, it continued to make way. The Rev. Dr. Booker, of Dudley, gave the following striking testimony to its beneficial effects:—“I have, previous to the knowledge of vaccine inoculation, frequently buried, day after day, several (and once as many as eight) victims of the small-pox. But since the parish has been blessed with this invaluable boon of Divine Providence (cow pox), introduced among us nearly four years ago, only two victims have fallen a prey to the above ravaging disorder (small pox). In the surrounding villages, like an insatiable Moloch, it has lately been devouring vast numbers, where obstinacy and prejudice have precluded the Jennerian protective blessing.”

In 1803, the Royal Jennerian Institution was founded under royal patronage, and with Jenner as president, to promote vaccination in London and elsewhere; and its operations were continued for a few years with much success, ceasing, however, on the establishment of the National Vaccine Institution in 1808. Two years prior to this event, Lord Henry Petty, who then held the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer, carried a motion in the House of Commons, that the Royal College of Physicians should be requested to inquire and report on the progress of vaccination. The report, which appeared in the following year, set forth that, within eight years from the discovery of vaccination, some hundreds of thousands of persons had been vaccinated in the British Islands, and upwards of eight hundred thousand in our East Indian possessions, and that the practice had been generally adopted on the continent of Europe. Considering that small-pox destroyed one-sixth of those whom it attacked, and that nearly one-tenth, and in some years more than that proportion, of the entire mortality in London was caused by it, and also the number, respectability, and extensive experience of the advocates of vaccination, compared with the feeble and imperfect testimonies of its few opponents, the value of the practice seemed firmly established.

This report did much to advance vaccination in public opinion. At the next quarter sessions held at Stafford, it was taken into consideration by the county magistrates, who, from its statements and the reports and testimonials sent to Jenner, considered themselves justified in placing it on record—“That vaccine inoculation, properly conducted, appeared never to have failed as a certain preservative against small-pox; that it was unattended by fever, and perfectly free from danger; that it required neither confinement, loss of time, nor previous preparation; that it was not infectious, nor productive of other diseases; that it might be performed with safety on persons of every age and sex, and at all times and seasons of the year.” It was not, however, until 1840 that the results of the labours of Jenner, the report of the Royal College of Physicians, and the opinions of nearly the entire medical profession received legislative endorsement by the passing of the Vaccination Act, since which small-pox has become a thing of the past, except in cases where it has been conserved by prejudice and ignorance.