Vac­ci­na­tion reg­is­ters

With the ad­vent of wide­spread vac­ci­na­tions in the mid-19th cen­tury came a valu­able re­source for the fam­ily his­to­rian – vac­ci­na­tion reg­is­ters, says Liz Palmer

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Small­pox killed 30 per cent of suf­fer­ers and is thought to have caused more deaths than any other ill­ness

It’s now 35 years since the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion de­clared that small­pox had been erad­i­cated glob­ally. This an­cient dis­ease killed 30 per cent of suf­fer­ers and is thought to have caused more deaths than any other ill­ness. Those for­tu­nate to sur­vive would suf­fer per­ma­nent and ex­ten­sive scar­ring and de­for­mi­ties, in­clud­ing the loss of lip, nose and ear tis­sue.

Var­i­o­la­tion – the im­mu­ni­sa­tion of sus­cep­ti­ble in­di­vid­u­als with ma­te­rial taken from small­pox le­sions – was prac­tised for many cen­turies in Africa and Asia. Lady Mary Wortley Mon­tagu wit­nessed this prac­tice while ac­com­pa­ny­ing her hus­band, a Bri­tish Am­bas­sador, to Turkey in 1717. Hav­ing suf­fered small­pox her­self she was anx­ious to pro­tect her chil­dren and had both of them var­i­o­lated. Back in Lon­don she cam­paigned vig­or­ously for the pro­ce­dure to be adopted. Once the Princess of Wales, Caro­line of Ans­bach, had her own daugh­ters var­i­o­lated in 1721, the prac­tice spread widely.

It was not with­out its crit­ics, how­ever, and with good rea­son; pa­tients them­selves could not only die from the pro­ce­dure but they also be­came car­ri­ers of the dis­ease and could cause an epi­demic.

Glouces­ter­shire doc­tor Ed­ward Jen­ner recog­nised that dairy­maids who con­tracted cow­pox (var­i­o­lae vac­ci­nae) de­vel­oped an im­mu­nity to the ‘speckled mon­ster’.

In his clas­sic (but some­what un­eth­i­cal) ex­per­i­ment in 1796, Jen­ner took pus from a cow­pox pus­tule on the hand of lo­cal milk­maid Sarah Nelmes and in­serted it into an in­ci­sion on the arm of eight-year-old James Phipps. James was then ex­posed to small­pox and, for­tu­nately for

him, Jen­ner’s hy­poth­e­sis proved to be cor­rect.

The ben­e­fits of this method of vac­ci­na­tion (a term coined by Jen­ner) was that it not only pro­vided im­mu­nity for the in­di­vid­ual but there was no sub­se­quent spread of small­pox to oth­ers.

Vac­ci­na­tion growth

From then on, vac­ci­na­tion spread quickly. Doc­tors charged for the ser­vice but in some places the newly cre­ated Poor Law Guardians es­tab­lished vac­ci­na­tion ser­vices. In Kings Nor­ton, Worces­ter­shire, a note in the Board of Guardians min­utes refers to two men be­ing em­ployed and de­tails their pay­ments for each case: “In cases of mid­wifery, in­clud­ing the sub­se­quent vac­ci­na­tion of the child and the nec­es­sary at­ten­dance in con­se­quence thereof, they were to be paid 10s 6d. In all other cases of vac­ci­na­tion and the nec­es­sary at­ten­dance the rate was to be 1s.”

The 1840 Vac­ci­na­tion Act made var­i­o­la­tion il­le­gal and also en­abled the Guardians to set up free pub­lic vac­ci­na­tion ser­vices – the first free med­i­cal ser­vice in Bri­tain. Vac­ci­na­tion was made com­pul­sory in an Act of 1853 but it wasn’t un­til 1871 that ev­ery lo­cal Board of Guardians was re­quired to ap­point a Vac­ci­na­tion Of­fi­cer.

Their role was to su­per­vise vac­ci­na­tion of all in­fants un­der four months old, to pros­e­cute de­fault­ers un­der the threat of fines and im­pris­on­ment, and to ar­range for qual­i­fied med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers to carry out vac­ci­na­tions.

Most of the sur­viv­ing records de­rive from the work of th­ese Vac­ci­na­tion Of­fi­cers and are a much un­der-utilised source by fam­ily his­to­ri­ans, con­sid­er­ing from 1871 to 1948 they should con­tain the names of ev­ery child reg­is­tered. The sys­tem pro­duced sev­eral dif­fer­ent types of record.

Med­i­cal reg­is­ters

Vac­ci­na­tion reg­is­ters can be used as a sub­sti­tute for birth reg­is­ters as they con­tain de­tails of each child reg­is­tered (see ex­am­ple, right) to­gether with in­for­ma­tion added about the vac­ci­na­tion it­self – when it was per­formed and by whom.

Those chil­dren who died be­fore a vac­ci­na­tion could be car­ried out are of­ten men­tioned – but a fuller source for this type of in­for­ma­tion is the Re­turns of Deaths. Th­ese vol­umes list ba­sic per­sonal de­tails – date and place of death, child’s name and age, par­ent’s oc­cu­pa­tion – rather than de­tailed notes on the cause of death. The lists in­clude those chil­dren who were in the care of the Guardians at the time of their death.

Along with keep­ing records of those chil­dren born within the Union, and en­sur­ing that they were vac­ci­nated, the Vac­ci­na­tion Of­fi­cers also had re­spon­si­bil­ity for treat­ing those whose birth had been reg­is­tered out­side the Union, but who now resided within it.

A car­toont showsh D Dr Ed­wardEd dJ Jen­ner seeingi offff anti-vac­ci­na­tionti i ti op­po­nents, with the dead at their feet, 1808

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