Victorian Vaccination …


Vaccination day in Port Mackay – attribution

When I went for my Covid shot, the nurse took a look at my arm to choose a vaccination site, noticed an old and faded scar, and asked ‘Was that a smallpox vaccination?’

It was.

In Scotland, where I was born, it was policy to use a lancet to scratch the inoculation site to leave a noticeable scar as proof of vaccination – in effect a vaccine passport.

As a teenager, girlfriends would bitch about how unsightly they were, especially if they’d manage to get a bit of a tan, but to be honest everyone had them, and anyway this was Scotland – short sleeves and spaghetti straps were a lot less common than woolly jumpers and Damart thermals.

Smallpox and tuberculosis were two of the really big killer diseases of the nineteenth century. When I look at my family history it’s quite disturbing to see how many of my predecessors died of lung diseases – usually lumped together under phthisis, which was used as a catchall term for not only tuberculosis but diseases brought on by constant exposure to smoke and pollution.

Primarily smallpox and phthisis were urban diseases – the ones in my family who died of these complaints lived in Dundee or Edinburgh, never those living on the farms, where they mixed less, living an isolated life except for market days, and were possibly less exposed to pollution and either adulterated or contaminated food.

The other interesting thing is that from the mid Victorian period onwards none of them died of smallpox – the reason being that smallpox vaccination became compulsory in Scotland in 1864, although not without some opposition. (There was no cure for tuberculosis – diagnosis was a death sentence and though treatment got better, remained so until the advent of antibiotics)

England had made vaccination compulsory some years earlier, and in Australia, Victoria made vaccination compulsory in 1854 to stop the spread of smallpox in the goldfields appointing public vaccinators for each district.


The vaccinator would make an incision into the skin and scrape in infected material harvested from someone already vaccinated to induce a mild case of cowpox – in fact it was a requirement that vaccinated people had to come back and have their infected material harvested.

Nineteen century medical equipment catalogues are full of various gruesome instruments for vaccination


Although some vaccinators preferred to make an incision with a lancet and then use a special tool such as this


to transfer the infected material – as perhaps the vaccinator is doing in the sketch at the head of this post.

And of course this reveals another gruesome secret about nineteenth century vaccination. To get the safe vaccination material here from England they transported in in the arm – having no other way of transferring a live vaccine.

This meant starting out the voyage with a group of unvaccinated individuals and progressively vaccinating a pair every eight days or so with material harvested from the previous pair to be vaccinated and hoping that they would be able to harvest live material once they got to Melbourne.

From there the material could be transported (quickly) on glass plates and used to restart the vaccination cycle.

Gruesome as the story is, it worked. Compulsory vaccination and health inspection successfully controlled the spread of smallpox in nineteenth century Victoria.

Of the other colonies, Tasmania enacted similar regulations but didn’t actually enforce them terribly strictly, and New South Wales never had compulsory vaccination. I’m unsure about the situation in the other colonies, although the lead picture suggests Queensland had a vaccination service …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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