Category Archives: Kipling

A Georgian Trifle and Hope for our Future

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.

Vaccinator 1

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.

Worth Matravers - Gravestone of Benjamen Jesty

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.

Vaccinator 2

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.

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Filed under Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Kipling, Scientific History

Our Fathers of Old – An Old Poem for Our Times

One of my favourite Kipling poems, and very apt for these troubled times.

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old–
Excellent herbs to ease their pain–
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, and Elecampane–
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue,
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you–
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

Wonderful tales had our fathers of old,
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars-
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in division it goes–
(Every herb had a planet bespoke)–
Who but Venus should govern the Rose?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak?
Simply and gravely the facts are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.

Wonderful little, when all is said,
Wonderful little our fathers knew.
Half their remedies cured you dead–
Most of their teaching was quite untrue–
“Look at the stars when a patient is ill.
(Dirt has nothing to do with disease),
Bleed and blister as much as you will,
Blister and bleed him as oft as you please.”
Whence enormous and manifold
Errors were made by our fathers of old.

Yet when the sickness was sore in the land,
And neither planets nor herbs assuaged,
They took their lives in their lancet-hand
And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged!
Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door-
(Yes, when the terrible dead-cart rolled!)
Excellent courage our fathers bore–
None too learned, but nobly bold
Into the fight went our fathers of old.

 

If it be certain, as Galen says–
And sage Hippocrates holds as much–
“That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily helped by a dead man’s touch,”
Then, be good to us, stars above!
Then, be good to us, herbs below!
We are afflicted by what we can prove,
We are distracted by what we know.
So-ah, so!
Down from your heaven or up from your mould
Send us the hearts of our Fathers of old!

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Filed under Kipling, plague, Poems

The Last Grave

The City has gone into the sea
The Church has gone into the sea
The Church Yard has gone into the sea
But one grave remains – The Last Grave.

The lost city of Dunwich

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt marsh where now is corn
Old wars, old peace, old arts that cease,
And thus was England born.

She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye,

Where you and I will fare!
(Puck’s song, Kipling)

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Filed under Kipling