Smallpox in History (National Library of Scotland)


I was lucky in 2012 to win an internship with the National Library of Scotland to research the history of Smallpox in British Indian in the 19th and 20th century.  Here my love for the history of Medicine first developed and I was required to work through a hundred years of sanitation reports in British India.

This was a fantastic opportunity for me as it allowed me for the first time focus on a single historical topic and develop specialist knowledge.  I was able to write the introduction web text for the collection as well as enjoyed working my way through thousands of pages of records written by the men who enforced smallpox inoculation in India.

Aside from slightly worrying that I had contracted smallpox from the pages of the old books, this introduced me to the contentions that surrounded the introduction of inoculation in the 19th century, as well as the fragile nature of the relationship between Britain and India during the Second Great Empire of Britain (1853 to 1953).  Many of the arguments against inoculation have similarities to modern concerns and amongst the often amusing anecdotes, there are heartbreaking tales of forced inoculation resulting in breaches of faith, suffering, mistrust, fear, and death.

The case of forced inoculation in India stands as one of the great examples of villainy for the purpose of the greater good.  For many India the introduction of part of a cow into their body, the main ingredient in Jenner’s vaccine for smallpox being puss from cowpox in this period, was abhorrent.  However, often the British officials forced the local population to accept the vaccine; either through ignorance, selfishness, belligerence, willful disregard for the practices of the Indian people, honest best intentions or simple stupidity under the idealism of the ‘civilising mission.  This was a fascinating time for the increase of record keeping, innovation of medical practices, and British supremacy over its empire, and within these records, there are still hundreds of untold stories which allow further insight into that period of ‘improvement’ during Victoria’s and Georges reign.

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