In March 1788 John Shephard, the Muston Overseer of the Poor, recorded ‘disbursements’ for the usual range of an overseer’s responsibilities: supporting the sick, maintaining the houses of those in need, and pursuing the fathers of illegitimate children for maintenance. At the end of his accounts, on March 22, 1788, he records a payment for the inoculation of 19 children.
Until the introduction of compulsory vaccination in England in 1853 smallpox was one of the most feared diseases. It was highly infectious, with a one in three chance of catching the disease and a one in five chance of dying if you caught it. Children were particularly susceptible. Survivors could suffer from disfiguring scarring or blindness.
For centuries, it was known that people who survived smallpox became immune to it. For that reason, nearly every culture tried to induce immunity in healthy individuals. The Chinese used tubes to insert powdered smallpox scabs into their nostrils. In Turkey, pus from lesions was scratched into the skin. In Wales it was common practice to ‘buy the pox’, paying for scabs from an infected person and rubbing them on the skin. In 1714 in Boston, Massachusetts the clergyman Cotton Mather reported: I had from a servant of my own an account of its being practised in Africa. Enquiring of my Negro man, Onesimus, who is a pretty intelligent fellow, whether he had ever had the smallpox, he answered, both yes and no; and then told me that he had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it; adding that it was often used among the Guramantese and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free of the fear of contagion.
Eventually these methods, called ‘variolation’, became known in Britain. Lady Mary Wortley Montague saw its effects against smallpox in Turkey and had her own son inoculated in 1718.
In 1721 the daughters of the 2nd Duke of Rutland contracted smallpox and the Duke himself died of the disease.
In the same year the Royal Family, fearing an epidemic of smallpox, wished to test the safety of variolation. It was tested on 6 condemned prisoners in Newgate in exchange for a reprieve. All the prisoners survived. The upper classes wanted further reassurance so six expendable orphans were infected and lived. As a result in 1722 the Princess of Wales had three of her children inoculated. In 1725 the 3rd Duke of Rutland followed her example.
As inoculation became more widely accepted, a Suffolk man, Daniel Sutton established a highly successful business, inoculating 22,000 people himself and setting up a chain of franchises offering inoculation. Parish officials recognised that smallpox amongst their poor was risk to the rest of the population and the inoculation of pauper children was economically advantageous. No doubt the Duke of Rutland, after his family’s experience of the disease, supported the practise in the Parishes on his estates.
Overseers began to ask for tenders on job-lot inoculation. Perhaps Master Stafford, who was paid £2 17s for 19 inoculations, had bought a Sutton franchise. Although innoculation was much safer than contracting smallpox, it was not without risk and some people were still fearful of its effects. It is unlikely that these 19 children, or their parents, were given much choice in the matter.
In 1796 Edward Jenner carried out his famous experiment. He inserted pus extracted from a cowpox pustule on the hand of a milkmaid, into an incision on the arm of his eight-year-old garden boy, James Phipps, testing the theory, drawn from the folk wisdom, that milkmaids who suffered the mild disease of cowpox never contracted smallpox. Happiily little James survived the experiment and made his master famous. Eventually Jenner proved conclusively that contracting cowpox provided immunity against smallpox as well.
But as Gilroy’s cartoon of 1802 shows, inoculation was still controversial. It was believed that inoculation with cowpox might cause the patient to grow horns, or an udder. Leicester was at heart of the anti-vaccine movement.
As far as can be told from the Muston parish records all the inoculated children survived. It is now thought that the fear of ‘cowification’ was misplaced. The virus came from horse pox.