“Vaccination: Fame, Fear and Controversy, 1798-1998,” is currently on exhibition until the end of April 2017, at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University. The exhibit is open to the public, Monday-Friday, 9AM-5PM.

Hope and Fear in a Glass Capillary – Connecting over the History of Vaccination with the Osler Library

This unassuming glass capillary of fluid represents much more than meets the eye. In addition to protection against smallpox, it represented hope for the eradication of a disease that T.B. Macaulay once described as being “always present, filling the churchyard with corpses, tormenting with constant fear all whom it had not yet stricken, leaving on those whose lives it spared the hideous traces of its power…”[1] To some, it may even represent the potential to wipe out all infectious diseases. To others, it represents fear and distrust of modern medicine. To still others, it could represent combinations of the above in varying degrees.

Capillary tube containing smallpox vaccine manufactured by Connaught Laboratories in Toronto, Ontario circa 1939. Medical Technology, Canada Science and Technology Museum, art. no. 2002.0101.

In 1798, Edward Jenner, an English country physician, published the results of his experiments on the use of cowpox inoculation in the prevention of smallpox, a procedure Jenner named vaccination. Although it was quickly taken up around the world, the benefits of vaccination were hotly contested from the beginning. Many, including physicians, were wary of “introducing a beastly humour into a human frame.”[2]

Picture of Sarah Nelmes’ hand, from which Jenner took material to inoculate James Phipps in 1796. Edward Jenner, An inquiry into the causes and effects of the variolae vaccinae, a disease discovered in some of the western counties of England, particularly Gloucestershire, and known by the name of the cow pox, London: D.N. Shury, 1800.

Picture of Sarah Nelmes’ hand, from which Jenner took material to inoculate James Phipps in 1796. Edward Jenner, An inquiry into the causes and effects of the variolae vaccinae, a disease discovered in some of the western counties of England, particularly Gloucestershire, and known by the name of the cow pox, London: D.N. Shury, 1800.

As early as 1802, caricaturists and satirists captured the fears of the public “that the human subject, when inoculated with cowpock matter, becomes contaminated; and is transformed into a brute…that an infant, when vaccinated, will have a face like an ox; and hair all over its body like a cow.”[3] The controversy surrounding vaccination would continue throughout the nineteenth century and persist until the present day, even after the hope of smallpox eradication was fulfilled in 1980.

The Cow-Pock ÔÇô or ÔÇô the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation high res

Satirical cartoon by James Gilray depicting the effects of vaccination. The Cow-Pock – or – the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! London: H. Humphrey, 1802. The British Museum.

The museum collection’s vial of smallpox vaccine, a remnant of the fight against the disease, is currently on display at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University. Their new exhibition, Vaccination: Fame, Fear and Controversy, 1798-1998, highlights the arguments that have been made by both pro-vaccinationists and anti-vaccinationists over the two hundred years following Jenner’s publication. Here, items from the Canada Science and Technology Museum connect with the library’s rare books collection to showcase how the dispute manifested in early nineteenth century Britain, during the 1885 Montreal smallpox epidemic, and the 1919 smallpox epidemic in Toronto. The exhibit engages with the history of vaccination controversy in an attempt to understand vaccine hesitancy and the fears that are attached.

“Vaccination: Fame, Fear and Controversy, 1798-1998,” is currently on exhibition until the end of April 2017, at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University. The exhibit is open to the public, Monday-Friday, 9AM-5PM.

“Vaccination: Fame, Fear and Controversy, 1798-1998,” is currently on exhibition until the end of April 2017, at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University. The exhibit is open to the public, Monday-Friday, 9AM-5PM.

Cynthia L. Tang, 2016 CSTMC-McGill Research Fellow

[1] T. B. Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II, Boston: De Wolfe, Fiske & Co., 1831, 424.

[2] Benjamin Moseley, Commentaries on the Lues Bovilla or Cowpox, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806.

[3] Anonymous, “Satirical poem on Moseley’s “Commentaries on the Lues Bovilla, or Cow Pox,” in The Vaccine Phantasmagoria, London: J. Murray, 1808.

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