Times Past: Vaccines deployed to end scourge of the poor

Edward Jenner inoculating a child in 1796 against smallpox

Edward Jenner inoculating a child in 1796 against smallpox - Credit: Wellcome Images

We are about to be offered a vaccination against Covid which I trust most will take up – but there are some unexpectedly early records of vaccination in the records of the Bideford Bridge Trust – the still existing body that used to look after the bridge. 

They deal with smallpox, which was one of the great scourges of the past where mortality rates amongst those who caught the disease reached up to 35 per cent - with those who survived usually being left with severe facial disfigurements.  

The first effective treatment via inoculation was publicised by Edward Jenner in May 1796.  

He may have been the first to publish results from his experiments with inoculation in 1797, but the technique was being used before this and an entry in the trust minutes from January 1787 shows that surgeons in Bideford were using it.  

The entry reads ‘Ordered that the Poor People of the parish be inoculated at the Expense of the Bridge at five shillings [25p] each to be done jointly by the Surgeons of the Town’. 

This payment was repeated in October 1792 when £10 was to be spent on 'Inoculating the Poor of the Parish’. 

The third occasion when this was done was in March 1795 the entry reading ‘Ordered that the Poor shall be inoculated at the expense of the Bridge and the Number equally divided between all the medical Practitioners of the Town’. 

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In 1799 an unspecified amount of money was ordered to be spent on further inoculations – an order repeated in 1801 when inoculations were to be carried out 'by all the Medical Practitioners of the Town in equal proportions' – presumably to deflect allegations of favouritism. 

One has to assume this worked as there are no later deaths recorded from the disease in the parish registers - although there were some cases in Barnstaple as late as 1928.  

I do wonder if the trustees, who were generally amongst the well-off, had the poor inoculated so that they and their families didn't catch it! 

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