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Smallpox vaccination, colonial Sydney and serendipity

Accidental discovery of an 1841 smallpox vaccine specimen prompts consideration of its historical context — and extreme caution

November 2010, Western Sydney

A parcel is delivered to the local Public Health Unit from the New South Wales State Records Authority. It contains copies of letters written in May 1841, between the then New South Wales Governor, Sir George Gipps, and Dr J V Thompson, Deputy Inspector General of Hospitals. Enclosed is a small package containing two glass slides, sealed together, guarding vaccine material crucial in protecting the young colony from the scourge of smallpox.

In the same week, the world mourns the death of Sir Frank Fenner, celebrated champion in the global eradication of smallpox, who had stood before the World Health Assembly some 30 years earlier and declared that the dreadful disease was extinct.

In May 1841, Sydney’s fledgling colony had a population of over 30 000,1 and ships carrying hundreds of immigrants arrived frequently. Sir George Gipps had been governing for 4 years, his tenure beset by challenges,…