Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

The Nottingham Vaccine Institution

By Terry Fry

Many countries around the world are desperately searching for viable vaccines to counteract the coronavirus Covid-19. But in the early 19th century smallpox, an acute contagious viral disease, was Public Enemy No. 1. Fortunately for some a vaccine was known and had been for some time. However, its use was limited by lack of funds and the public’s reluctance to accept vaccination.

The great breakthrough in overcoming the disease was made by Edward Jenner in 1798, when he published his famous pamphlet on the causes and effects of Variolae vaccinae or cowpox. However, vaccination was regarded as a much more reliable antidote than variolation. It was first used in Nottingham by John Attenburrow, Surgeon to the General Hospital for 61 years. In 1800, after another outbreak of the disease, he started free vaccination at his surgery on Beastmarket Hill and other surgeons soon followed suit.

It was difficult for them to continue their work without funding, so in 1805 the Nottingham Vaccine Institution was set up by Dr. John Storer and Dr. Charles Pennington, both prominent long-serving physicians. (In fact, Dr. Storer, who became the first President of Bromley House Library, was appointed Consulting Physician Extraordinary for life in 1802.) The Institution was funded by public subscription so anyone could be treated whether paying for it or not. It was well used but an advertisement in the Nottingham Review in September 1808 revealed that it had run out of money. Occasional donations were made such as that of twenty guineas by the Borough in October 1809. The Institution struggled on until 1813, when it finally closed due to lack of cash.

However, the principle of free vaccination had been established. In March 1913 R. T. Stanley, a surgeon of Clumber Street, ‘proposes to inoculate the poor of Nottingham and surrounding villages free of expense’. The work was also carried out by non-professionals, especially Edmund Hart who received the Freedom of Nottingham in 1814 for vaccinating 1,500 children gratis. He was elected an honorary member of the National Vaccine Establishment in 1822.

For the remainder of the 19th century, attempts by the Borough to combat smallpox were on an ad hoc basis. A Fever House was opened at the General Hospital in 1828, but, in conjunction with vaccination, it was still not enough. When the next major epidemic occurred in 1871 the Borough was not properly prepared. A couple of poorly built small hospitals were cobbled together, then abandoned. The next epidemic occurred in January 1903 and a smallpox hospital was then built on Bulwell Forest in four weeks without plans. It was difficult to enforce quarantine especially as many residents still resisted vaccination. From 1897 several registered as conscientious objectors, encouraged in 1903 by the Nottingham and District Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Society. However, when there was an outbreak in 1921, over 10,000 vaccinations took place in emergency centres set up in the city. As the century progressed smallpox became a rare disease.

It was finally eradicated throughout the world in 1979, following an intense campaign of vaccination led by the World Health Organisation. We must all hope for a similar result as vaccines are developed to eradicate the coronavirus.