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Vaccination Began In Newfoundland

by Roger Guttridge, Wimborne, Dorset, England

transcribed, with permission, from the author's column
The Old World Connection
in The Downhomer, St. John's, NF, December 2000.




    One of the most important figures in Newfoundland's medical history is the Rev. Dr. John Clinch, a clergyman-physician credited with being the first man to practise vaccination in North America. He first sailed to Newfoundland in the 1780s at the behest of George Kemp, a merchant and deacon at the Skinner Street Independent Church of Poole, Dorset, who wanted him to provide medical care for Poole fishermen in the colony.

    Clinch went first to Twillingate, where a Canadian Heritage plaque has since been erected in the churchyard marking his place in history. His second port of call was Trinity (T. B.), where he made an even greater impression. "The parishioners of Trinity were so grateful for the work that he was doing among them, not only in the medical field but also in their spiritual welfare, that they petitioned the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel that he might become their rector," says Ron Harding, an elder at the Skinner Street Church.

    In response to this petition, Clinch returned to Poole in 1787 to begin an intensive course of study and training for the priesthood. He lived during this period at Hamworthy, a community separated from Poole by a harbour channel, and once again made good use of his remarkable talents.

    "Whilst at Hamworthy he gathered together a group of children who had no opportunity of attending school, taught them to read and write and introduced them to the teaching of the Bible," says Ron.

    "There was no church in Hamworthy at that time and no bridge connecting it to Poole. He decided it was time for 15 or 16 of these children to attend public worship. Accordingly, one Sunday morning he took them across by boat to the town quay and marched them to the parish church of St. James.

    "The church wardens were unable to accept them. They were already responsible for a large number of poor children in the Poole parish, and Hamworthy was then in the parish of Sturminster Marshall. He took them along to the Skinner Street Independent Church were (sic) the Rev. Ashburner warmly welcomed them, and thus the Skinner Street Sunday School was founded, which continues to this day under its new title, the Junior Church."

    Within two years, Sunday schools had also been formed at St. James's Church and at the Unitarian Church at Poole. They were among the first Sunday schools in the south of England.

    By 1789, Dr. Clinch was back in Newfoundland, where he was soon to be joined by the Rev. George Jenner, a nephew of Edward Jenner, celebrated today as the pioneer of smallpox vaccine. John Clinch and Edward Jenner were old friends, having studied alongside each other both at school and as medical students. Clinch also knew George, and it appears that in 1788 he made him some kind of professional offer which the young man felt he could not refuse. The arrangement is referred to in a letter from Edward to John Clinch dated February 7, 1789.

    "George has at length left us to take leave of his friends elsewhere before he departs to your snowy shores," wrote Jenner senior. "Your offer was in every respect so liberal that it would have been unjust in me to have said anything to have damped his ardour for catching at so good an opportunity of improving his fortune. As a medical character we shall one day or another see him shine."

    By the mid-1790s, George was working as the Anglican minister at Harbour Grace, where he is said to have "met with more favour from the people than his predecessors." His name appears in the parish registers for Harbour Grace between August 1795 and October 1798, after which it appears that he returned to England to help his uncle to promote the cause of vaccination in his native country.

    It was also in 1798 that Edward Jenner sent Clinch a copy of his book describing the method of vaccination. Clinch seems to have wasted little time in starting his own vaccination programme. It was certainly in operation by 1800 because on October 3 of that year, Dr. John McCurdy, surgeon at St. John's, wrote of his plans to set out with Dr. Clinch the following day to inoculate the inhabitants of Portugal Cove. McCurdy also comments on the "great importance to mankind" of Edward Jenner's discovery.

    A more comprehensive picture of what was happening in Newfoundland is given in another letter, written by Clinch himself to George Jenner and subsequently - in May 1801 - published in the Medical and Physical Journal, apparently with the aim of countering adverse publicity. The letter reveals an extraordinary degree of faith in the vaccine.

    Clinch wrote: "The threads you sent me produced the desired effect, which proved a happy circumstance for this harbour. After inoculating my own family, I availed myself of the opportunity, whilst the smallpox was making its ravages at St. John's, of visiting that place. Encouraged by your representation, and in order to establish the fact of the cowpox being an absolute preventive of the smallpox, I put my nephew Joseph Hart to the most rigid test by inoculating him with activo-variolous matter and exposing him to a contagious atmosphere, but without its producing in either instance the smallest effect on the system. This single case excited the astonishment of every person without whose knowledge it came; and most of those who had not previously gone through the smallpox were eager to shield themselves against that dreadful malady by adopting the Vaccine Inoculation."

    Clinch adds that just before his arrival in St. John's, a woman had been inoculated for the smallpox. Four days later her "infant at the breast" also received the vaccine. "Both went through the respective disease in the usual way, and perfectly distinct from each other, although the mother continued to suckle her child the whole time."

    Clinch's letter goes on: "Shortly after my return to this place (Trinity), the smallpox was imported in a vessel from Quebec. One of her crew died of it. Fortunately for the inhabitants of Trinity, most of them had been inoculated with the cowpox and were thereby prepared to resist the influence of the smallpox. Several of my cowpox patients attended this man during his illness, but escaped the infection of his disease."

    Clinch also refers to a large debt of gratitude to Dr. McCurdy, whose "zeal and exertion" had led to the rapid progress of the vaccine inoculation in Newfoundland. McCurdy had received his virus from Dr. Jenner via the Governor of Newfoundland, Admiral Pole. Clinch was, however, worried about the practice of indiscriminate inoculation of Newfoundland by inexperienced people.

    A less well-known aspect of this story is that although history credits Edward Jenner with the discovery of the vaccine, inoculation were in fact practised 22 years before by a farmer in Dorset. It wads during a smallpox epidemic in southern England in 1774 that Benjamin Jesty recalled the popular belief among country people that victims of the milder cowpox became immune to the more serious disease. Extracting some pus from a cowpox-infected animal belonging to another farmer, he then introduced it into the bloodstream of his wife and two sons after scratching them with a darning needle.

    The experiment was successful and for many years afterwards Jesty continued to vaccine country people in Dorset. His work was eventually given token recognition in 1805, and was also acknowledged by Edward Jenner, who cited the farmer's experiments as corroborative evidence.

    John Clinch, meanwhile, continued his work in Newfoundland for many years, although by 1817 he was in failing health. In a letter to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, he refers to severe attacks "particularly on my breath which has prevented my attending the church so constantly as usual. My son John officiated in my place, and I am happy to say, much to the satisfaction of the inhabitants." The letter also refers to the hardships brought about by the winter weather and a scarcity of provisions which had combined in many places to produce famine.

    In 1818, John Clinch suffered a stroke which caused the partial loss of motion in his left arm and leg. He died on November 22, 1819, aged 71, and was buried under the alter of the first St. Paul's Church at Trinity. the church has twice been rebuilt since then, and Clinch's simple memorial is now in the churchyard.

    Roger Guttridge is a freelance writer from Dorset, England, whose special interests include the historic transatlantic links between Newfoundland and Labrador and Southwestern England and Ireland. He first visited Newfoundland for the launch of the 'Trinity Trust' in 1993 and returned to witness the arrival of the 'Matthew' in 1997. Readers can e-mail Rodger at:



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Contributed by: James Butler
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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