Inoculation in the First World War undoubtedly saved many lives. The squalor of combat and battle had served as a continual threat to soldiers lives for hundreds of years. In the 19th-century, growing awareness and scientific knowledge of the dangers of germs and bacteria overtook previous theories debated between Contagionism and Anticontagionism. Theories such as Miasma (literally meaning ‘bad air’ began to recede as pathology and microbiology developed the sufficient skill to recognise the primary culprit in contagious disease within bacterial infection and spread. Sanitation and clean water had very much been at the heart of efforts to improve military and general public health. This had been supported by pioneers like Florence Nightingale during the Crimean war (1852-1856) who advocated for better sanitation conditions for wounded soldiers. John Snow (not that one!) in the latter 19th century who was responsible for averting a cholera epidemic in Broadstreet in London by removing the handle from a contaminated drinking well. Robert Lister, whose experiences in Edinburgh would transform the nature of modern surgery and help to evolve the typical surgeon from butcher to specialist; and finally, Louis Pasteur, whose theories and discoveries about germs would redefine the understanding of disease and epidemiology.
One of the biggest changes to the prevention of disease was discovered over a century before the First World War by Edward Jenner, who discovered the vaccine for smallpox.
Jenners discovery, inspired by a national love of milkmaids and a terrifying ability to experiment on a young boy, produced in the late 18th century an alternative to the often deadly arm to arm variolation (the practice of passing smallpox pus from a scab to a healthy arm to prompt immunity) in the form of Vaccination.
Ever contentious, the practice of vaccination removed controversial throughout the 19th century with concerns ranging from actually causing death, the use of animal materials against religious views, and the potential to turn into a cow as a result of the inoculation.
Whilst mandatory inoculation was repealed in the early 20h century, the contention continued as new inoculations developed for diseases such as Rabies, Typhoid, and Cholera.
Almonth Wright developed an inactivated typhoid vaccine (1896) and a pneumococcal vaccine (1911). He tested it British India as part of the Indian Medical Services at the end of the century and on troops during the Second Boer War from 1899 to 1902. Whilst the results were mixed and tainted by the inexpert method of experimentation and the raging fury against vaccination brewing within the civilian population; the British Military soon adapted the vaccine and introduced to to the majority of British soldiers who served in the First World War.
My article The Greater Good, published in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History picks up the story here and uncovers how, not only was the inoculation introduced to soldiers but in some instances forced upon them – all the ‘Greater Good.’
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