Re-devising Jennerian vaccines? : European technologies, Indian innovation and the control of smallpox in South Asia, 1850-1950
In 1926, the Director of Public Health of the Government of Bombay was faced with a complaint he could possibly not ignore. A 'leading gentleman' of Surat city claimed, to the administration's obvious discomfiture, that two of his grand daughters had been stricken with smallpox after being vaccinated. This incident caused the city's population to suspect the purity of the lymph being provided by the government vaccination agencies, and the intensity of feeling arising from this case caused the local public health agencies to launch a 'careful enquiry'. The investigation concluded that the victims had picked up the smallpox infection from the children of the domestic staff, one of whom had recently died of the disease, and not from the vaccine. The official report attempted to underline the purity of the lymph by asserting that although twenty eight children were vaccinated with the dose in question, only the two girls had been affected. The case was then closed by the authorities.1
Significantly, this was but only one of a long list of complaints that had been levelled against official smallpox vaccination. Although only some were investigated, the governmental vaccinating agencies remained acutely aware right up t@ 1950, and possibly till even later, that their activities were not proceeding as smoothly as intended. Indeed, the difficulties arising from the practise of vaccination raked up a series of debates, some extremely acrimonious, about how far the authorities should push the inhabitants of the sub-continent into accepting the smallpox preventive. These, in turn, got inextricably inter-linked with equally vociferous disagreements about the experimentation with vaccines, their usefulness in different parts of
* Department of Cultural Studies, Sheffield Ha Ham University, England.
Social Scientist, Vol. 28, Nos. 11 -12 Nov. - Dec. 1998*