A year or two ago I bought, in a mixed lot at auction, an object that was described as a set of ‘folding toothpicks’. I didn’t think they were toothpicks, but they were beautifully made and clearly had some important function, it took a while before I realised they had been very important indeed. This is their story.
In the eighteenth century the terrible disease of smallpox was endemic, every so often there were outbreaks and many people were disfigured or died. There was a form of treatment, inoculation or variolation, which had been introduced to Britain by Mary Wortley Montague at the beginning of the century. But this treatment was, in many cases, as bad as the disease, because variolation involved giving the patient, what was hoped would be, a mild form of smallpox. If you were lucky you would survive, without too many scars, and would then have natural immunity in the future, if not, you died. Position and wealth couldn’t help you, the Princes Octavius and Alfred, the youngest sons of George III both died after being inoculated.
In the West Country people had long noticed that if a person caught the disease cowpox, they were subsequently immune to smallpox. This was possibly one of the reasons that milkmaids were proverbially pretty, their faces weren’t scarred with pock marks. Although well-known it wasn’t until 1774 that one man, a Dorset farmer called Benjamin Jesty, decided to try to recreate this immunity by deliberately giving someone cowpox.
He had caught the disease as a child, so he couldn’t experiment on himself, so he decided to give cowpox to his family, he scratched the arms of his two sons and rubbed in ‘matter’ from a cowpox sore from a cow. They were ill for a few days, and then were thereafter immune to smallpox (this was tested nearly thirty years later). Then he tried it on his wife, this time she became seriously ill, and nearly died. The local doctor said he admired what Jesty had done, and would try and protect him if his wife died and he was charged with murder. Happily she recovered, but the local people regarded him as potential wife-murderer, and in due course he had to leave his home at Yetminster in north Dorset, and had to move many miles to Worth Matravers in the south of the county.
Twenty years later, in Gloucestershire, Dr Edward Jenner began his experiments. He knew of the traditions about Cowpox, he may have heard of Jesty, but he was a doctor and managed to treat his patients without danger. In 1796 he gave a boy cowpox, there was a slight illness, then he tested the boy – he was immune to smallpox. Dr Jenner carried out many more experiments, and finally published his results in a form other doctors would believe, and so saved millions of lived. As the material came from a cow (vacca in Latin) he called it vaccine, and the process of administering it vaccination.
But what has that to do with the tiny object I showed you at the beginning of the blog. It took me a while but I eventually discovered that these are early vaccination points, a persons arm would be scratched and vaccine, the matter from the cow pock on a cow, or a previously infected person, would be transferred to the wound, using the points. The points are made from either bone or ivory as it was found that metals could kill the vaccine.
So, as we await the vaccines that will end the present pestilence, look on this tiny object, which almost certainly saved hundreds of lives, and think of (and thank) those doctors who, in Kipling’s words;
Took their lives in their lancet hands,
And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged.