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