Friday, 3 September 2021

Archive in a Pandemic A-Z: V is for...


We have seen far more lovely new faces this Summer as restrictions have gradually eased and visitors have returned to Orkney in larger numbers.

We are still asking researchers to wear masks, social distance and wash their hands and we still encourage booking for those visitors with more complex enquiries, but it does feel quite like old summers again...

Vaccines are a huge part of this and we have been looking at vaccinations in Orkney during the 19th century.

Smallpox was the virus everyone feared and then, as now, there was some scepticism about the inoculation offered by medics which was the deliberate infection with the much less dangerous cowpox. Again, as now, the vast majority of people did consent to be inoculated.

'Many people throughout the country are rather sceptical, but I have not found a single instance of real mistrust that is, I have not found anyone who was unwilling to try cowpox'

Then, as now, some did not seek the treatment until cases were high in their area and, as now, vaccine supplies sometimes struggled to cope with demand:

'I have known many families of three, four or five children be unvaccinated,' til small pox makes its appearance in the islands and then the demand caused by terror of the pest, was so great that a sufficient quantity of lymphs could not be so expeditiously obtained as was required.'

Then, as now, there was a spread of disinformation and alarm at the few incidences of vaccinated people becoming ill:

Click on image to enlarge 

Archives consulted: 

D2/12/11: Dr William Wood, Kirkwall in reply to Balfour's letter regarding the establishment of a Vaccine Board in Scotland and commenting on the situation regarding vaccination in Orkney at that time. 7th October 1836

SC11/5/1812/18: Report of the national vaccine establishment 9th March 1812


  1. My g-g-g-uncle was in the US Civil War. He wrote a letter to my g-g-grandmother, which is preserved in the family. Calvin Bowersox wrote:"... I am as well as a cuss. we was all vaxinated. I have been vaxinated twice. the first time it did not take as good as I like, so I tried it over, and will til it takes right..." Sadly, Calvin was killed at the Battle of Shiloh, 8 April 1862. He had been shot in the foot, but after getting treated, he put the bullet the surgeon removed into his pocket, grabbed a pistol and ran back out to join the troops. He was shot and killed. The vaccination he wrote about was the smallpox vaccination. I am not as brave as he was.

  2. Wow Su, what an amazing letter to have as part of your family archive! Calvin sounds very brave indeed.


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