A (very) Brief History of Smallpox Inoculation in Britain

Summer wears on and the dissertation is constantly a work in progress. I am about half way done at this point, though I woke up in the middle of the night last night to a feeling of dread as the words ‘it’s almost the end of June’ floated through my mind.

The project has taken me in more and different directions than I anticipated, which I am very happy about. I just finished a rough draft of Chapter 2, which doesn’t feel like as much of an accomplishment as I had hoped, but I now know infinitely more about the history of smallpox inoculation in the 18th century than I ever have at any point in my life. And wow is it interesting.

Smallpox was an absolutely devastating disease, killing approximately 1/2 of all who contracted it and leaving most of the survivors covered in large scars, as well as permanently blinding about 1/3 of them. Various methods of inoculating for smallpox had been developed in places like Turkey, China, and North Africa as early as the 11th century, but it wasn’t until 1718 that Lady Mary Wartley Montague officially brought inoculation technology to Britain from Turkey. The Turkish method adopted in Britain involved making an incision in the arm of the patient and putting matter from a smallpox pustule into the incision. A localised infection would follow but the person would (almost always) be immune to smallpox afterward. Occasionally a larger infection would occur, and very rarely someone would die during inoculation. In the 1750s Dr. Robert Sutton developed a less dangerous means of inoculation that he dubbed the Suttonian method, which caught on and became the main method until the end of the 18th century, when Dr. Jenner discovered vaccination. The Suttonian method was specific in that the physician or surgeon performing the inoculation did not bleed the patient first (as had become popular, speculatively as a means for physicians to retain control of a really rather simple technique), and that the patient was inoculated into a shallow cut by the matter from a small pustule on someone who had not had a very severe case of the disease. Thus Sutton standardised inoculation in Britain and discovered the method that was to be used throughout the second half of the 18th century. A plethora of interesting pamphlets were written about it, particularly in London where the disease remained a constant presence, occasionally sweeping through the city.

Smallpox inoculation - Wellcome Images

Smallpox inoculation – Wellcome Images

From there we move onto the topic of vaccination, but that’s an entry for another day.


One comment

  1. Katie

    An interesting one. Some links which may be new to you and which are smallpox in 18thC Edinburgh related ….


    And one about a guy called Jenner who was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians at the end of the 18thC


    Hope they’re helpful.

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