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A vaccine scare in 19th century Northampton
  1. A N Williams
  1. Child Development Centre, Northampton General Hospital, Northampton NN1 5BD, UK;

Statistics from

The controversy regarding immunisation is longstanding. Records from 1806 concerning a vaccine scare in Northampton give a flavour of events, which strike a contemporary chord.

The revelation of Edward Jenner’s 1798 seminal work meant smallpox mortality fell from 31% in unvaccinated children compared to 1.2% in vaccinated.1,2

Northampton General Infirmary made cowpox vaccination a high priority and was proactive in its approach, with free cowpox inoculation being undertaken on the hospital premises from 1804 onwards.3

On 10 January 1806 the Board of Governors dealt with a growing vaccine scare concerning alleged vaccine failure and one in particular, leading to the death of a child, Peter Bell.

“Gentlemen, the public mind having been lately much agitated by reports of the insecurity of the vaccine inoculations, we have endeavoured to investigate those instances of failures we have heard of and have invariably found such reports to be arrived at either by error or misrepresentation.”3

However, to defuse the situation an affidavit signed by the parents of Peter Bell denying these rumours was published in the Northampton Mercury:3

Article from the Northampton Mercury, 10 January 1806“Whereas a false and groundless report has been spread about this town and neighbourhood that our son Peter Bell died on the 6th instant of smallpox after having been inoculated for the cowpox by Dr Kerr and the Infirmary now we do hereby declare that neither the above named child nor our child Ann Bell ever had the smallpox or the symptom or appearance of smallpox whatever. Both our said children were inoculated for the cowpox by Mr. Mills and both of them came safely through the disease. The eldest of them has been ever since in perfect health and Peter the youngest having been always a weakly child had better health after the cowpox than ever he had enjoyed before until he was seized with a violent complaint in his bowels of which he died on 20th December last.” (Signed by William Bell, guard to the Defiance coach; Sarah Bell, his wife3)

The following week on 17 January the Board of Governors reported.

“The Governors…having adopted the resolution of permitting the poor to be inoculated for the cowpox as outpatients…do hereby certify that we know of no incidence of any person having had the smallpox who had been previously inoculated for the cowpox.”3

A register was however established with the hope: “By these means the practice of vaccination and its merits as a complete security against the smallpox will be gradually be brought to the test of unprejudiced experience”.3

One could regard this as common sense, which today would be described as “clinical governance”.

Doctors beleaguered in the present time through similar “misrepresentations” regarding immunisations should take heart that this is not a new problem, but perhaps managers could learn from the more robust attitude taken by our medical forebears when dealing with the media in these matters.



  • Competing interests: none declared

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