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A Historical Note on the Rev. John Clinch, First Canadian Vaccinator (Part 1)

by John W. Davies, M.B., B.Sc., M.Sc., D.P.H., Ottawa, Ontario

(transcribed from The Fisherman's Advocate, August 28, 1970)


The unveiling of a plaque on June 1, 1968 at Trinity, Newfoundland, commemorating the introduction of smallpox vaccine to Canada by the Reverend John Clinch prompts the recording of the material I have been able to gather on his life and work. This is a particularly fitting time to document the details of the introduction and use of this vaccine in Newfoundland, and to pay tribute to this man for his pioneering work as a medical missionary. The literature on the early history of vaccinations in different countries, including the New World, is extensive, so it is all the more surprising to find that, except for brief mention, the contribution of this modest medical missionary has been overlooked previously. This neglect may have been caused in part by failure to locate important correspondence passing between the principal characters in the story, thereby obscuring some of the details of the introduction of vaccination and the exact sequence of events. However, this fascinating episode in medical history certainly merits recording before it becomes buried in the mists of antiquity.

Jenner's part in the discovery and development of the practice of vaccination is well known to most physicians. Some important facts are recapitulated, however, since they are relevant to the story.

Edward Jenner was born in the vicarage of Berkeley, in Gloucestershire, England, on May 17, 1749. He was the son of Rev. Stephen Jenner, and after his father's death was brought up by his eldest brother, Stephen. Another brother, the Rev. Henry Jenner, produced a son George, later to become the Rev. George C. Jenner, who was also to spend several years of his clerical life in Newfoundland. After his early schooling under the Rev. Mr. Clissold at Notton-under-edge, Edward was placed at Cirencester under the Rev. Dr. Washbourne. At the age of 13 he was apprenticed under Mr. Ludlow, an eminent surgeon in Sodbury, near Bristol. Later, at the age of 20 (1770), he went to London to prosecute his professional studies under the instruction of the celebrated John Hunter, with whose family he resided for two years - a favourite pupil.

Hunter had a lasting influence on Jenner's career. On being told of the local belief that dairymaids who had contracted a disease affecting the udders of cows, called cowpox, were thereafter not susceptible to smallpox, and being asked his opinion, Hunter advised him, "don't think, try the experiment". After a long period of observation and collection of facts in his country practice, Jenner finally followed this advice, and on May 14, 1796, performed his first vaccination, on a country boy, James Phipps, using matter he had obtained from a pustule on the hands of one of the milkmaids, Sarah Nelmes. Six weeks later, July 1, 1796, he inoculated James with pus from a case of smallpox. This inoculation failed to take, indicating the boy's immunity to smallpox, and vaccination as we know it today was born.

By June 1798 Jenner had assembled the evidence, and his report of 23 cases of successful vaccination was published in a book entitled "An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolate Vaccine . . " (London, 1798). Sixteen of these cases were of the natural disease, the rest the result of inoculation. A priceless copy of this book, fortunately preserved, autographed "for the Rev. John Clinch From his affectionate friend the author" was donated many years ago by an Irish physician to the Boston Medical Library. Mention of this interesting link in the story will be made below.

The parish register of the Anglican Church in Cirencester records the birth of John Clinch (of Thomas Clinch), one of twins, on January 9, 1749. The entry appears in the parish register under 1748, which is in effect 1749, as at that time the New year began in March. As a young boy he and Jenner spent their early years at school together, but little is known of John Clinch's early life. The two were also fellow pupils of John Hunter in London. Having studied together, they contracted for each other a warm and sincere friendship, the lasting nature of which is revealed in their subsequent correspondence.

John Clinch arrived in Bonavista, Newfoundland, from England as a medical practitioner in 1775, and practised medicine there for the following eight years, moving in 1783 to Trinity, where he took up residence. An entry in the Bonavista Church of England register made by Thomas Gaylor, Esq., in 1840 reads: "as this register will, I hope, be preserved, that future generations may know that Abraham Ackerman about the year 1780 took to reading in church which was sometimes without a reader. Dr. Clinch who performed the services of the church here had removed to Trinity, and after that was ordained and became the Society's missionary at Trinity. Mr. Ackerman continued for nearly half a century to do the duties of the church".

In 1784 the Rev. Clinch married Hannah Hart of English Harbour, a community several miles from Trinity. They had eight children, seven sons and one daughter. The first son, born january 1, 1786, was named Edward Jenner Clinch, in honour of his old friend. Shortly after he came to Trinity, the people petitioned the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to have Dr. Clinch ordained and stationed there as their parish priest. This request was granted, and Clinch went to England, being ordained by the Bishop of London in 1787. He then returned to Trinity and thereafter ministered in the dual capacity of priest and doctor over 30 years - in fact until the time of his death in 1819.

Clinch was one of the few medical and missionary pioneers in the island at that time. Trinity ("the capital of the North") with its beautiful landlocked harbour was second in importance only to St. John's, the capital. It has been described as the Newfoundland town which most resembled an English village. Stationed here were a large number of Poole firms (the Slades, Lesters and Garlands) engaged in the fish trade. The population, consisting of fishermen, tradesmen, blacksmiths and coopers, etc., approached 1000 but the scope of Clinch's work was much greater, covering the whole of Trinity Bay. In those days it was fairly common for men of education and culture to have other appointments, and Clinch was no exception to this. In August 1800 he was appointed by the Governor of the day, Judge of the Surrogate Court of the Island and Receiver of the Greenwich Hospital dues. For a time he was also a Poor Law Commissioner, land surveyor, and collector of customs. He must have been a man of extraordinary talent to engage in such a variety of duties.

(Continued next Week)



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