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A Historical Note on the Rev. John Clinch
First Canadian Vaccinator
(Part 2)

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

(transcribed from The Fisherman's Advocate, September 4, 1970)

 

There is a suggestion that a Masonic Lodge was in existence in Trinity at the end of the eighteenth century, but records are not available. In 1816 a petition was presented through the Lodge of Amity No. 137 at Poole, Dorset, England, for the formation of a new Lodge at Trinity. Among the founders was the Rev. John Clinch, who became the first Master under the regular Warrant.

Despite the burden of his official obligations, he had the initiative to compile a very valuable glossary of Beothuck terms, being one of three in existence today. It contains 112 terms of the language, many of them new.

His reports to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which I have been privileged to read, unfortunately provide little information of interest about the conditions of medical practise. they do, however, reveal some of the anxieties and hardships suffered by these early pioneers. In a letter dated July 1811, he says, "My three oldest boys of whose imbecility you have already been made acquainted, continue in the same state, and I fear they will never be able to provide comfortable subsistence for themselves". In a further letter dated December 17, 1812, he described the privation caused by war: "Since the commencement of hostilities with America, there is great scarcity of the necessary essential articles of live; bread is now selling at 80 shillings per cwt. and flour at 160 shillings per bbl". His salary at that time is not known, but in 1790 it was noted as being 70 pounds which the Society increased in 1797, having "taken into serious consideration the state of missionaries in Newfoundland, their laborious and sometimes dangerous duties, their difficulties, their services and their merits, and have been induced to increase the salaries of all missionaries on that Island". Of some consolation was the fact that in 1811 he was able to say that "my fourth son is lately placed an apprentice to a surgeon and apothecary at Cirencester, of whom I have received very flattering accounts that Spring" (this must have been John, born March 13, 1796). His youngest son, Joseph Hart Clinch, born in February 1806, was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Nova Scotia in 1829, and was stations at Bridgetown and Wilmott from 1830 to 1831. After ministering for many years in Boston, he became Secretary of the Massachusetts Conventions. Recognized as a Hebrew scholar of some renown, he was also a poet, and described his childhood memories of Trinity:

    "A little bay whose soft repose
    Seldom and slight disturbance knows"

and

    "Each cavern there, each stock and stone
    Brightly on memory's vision glows
    Like old acquaintance kindly known."

His daughter, Mary Elizabeth, was married in 1823 to the Rev. William Bullock, who succeeded Clinch as minister in Trinity after his death.

The Rev. Dr. Clinch is probably most widely known today, at least in Newfoundland, in connection with the introduction of vaccination against smallpox. In trinity itself, a strong tradition maintained through the subsequent generations asserts that Dr. Clinch performed not only the first vaccination in Newfoundland, but the first in the New World - a tradition of which they are very jealous. An account which apparently left with some the impression that Clinch first used the vaccine on his own nephew was contributed by Canon Lockyer in the St. John's newspaper, The Evening Telegram, dated February 4, 1922, and throws much light on this connection.

    "I have always known that vaccination for smallpox was introduced into Newfoundland by Reverend John Clinch, surgeon, and that it was used by him for the first time on a boy in Trinity, but I had forgotten the details. A few days ago, however, I found a letter from a grandson of Rev. John Clinch to me, some 25 years ago, in which he mentioned what he had heard his father say, as follows: "Dr. Jenner and Rev. John Clinch were personal friends, and when he (Dr. Jenner) had discovered a vaccine for smallpox he wrote to Dr. Clinch about it and at the same time he sent him some quills of the vaccine. soon after, a severe epidemic of smallpox broke out in Trinity, and I think in St. John's too. He wanted to vaccinate the people but they were afraid of it. His favourite nephew, a lad of 17, offered himself to be put to the severest test he could think of. Dr. Clinch vaccinated him and put him in bed with a man dying of confluent smallpox, and the lad took no hurt. Then the people flocked to be vaccinated, and the epidemic was arrested. After that, the doctor had no trouble to introduce it generally, and the people were intensely grateful. I think this act was even more heroic of the man than of the boy, for if the boy had succumbed he certainly could never have forgiven himself. The boy he vaccinated was Joseph Hart of English Harbour, a nephew of Mrs. Clinch who was Hannah Hart of English Harbour."

Considering the time which had elapsed between the introduction of vaccination and the date of the statement, it is a surprisingly accurate reflection of the events which occurred. It should be interpreted, however, in conjunction with related correspondence which throws additional light on the story. In summary, this correspondence confirms that Clinch began the task by inoculating his own children. It also reveals that vaccine supplies were obtained both from Dr. Edward Jenner and from the Rev. Dr. George Jenner, and that an extensive program of vaccination was conducted in Trinity itself. Later the opportunity was taken to extend this service to the capital city of St. John's and to nearby Portugal Cove by the first week of October 1800. Unfortunately the date of the first vaccination is not recorded in extant correspondence.

Dr. Jenner obviously kept his friend in Newfoundland well informed about his vaccine experiments. The rapidity with which the news of the discovery was transmitted is rather remarkable in view of the haphazard communications of those days, and demonstrated the speed with which new ideas were disseminated before the electronic age to which we are now accustomed. As early as December 1, 1796, only six months after Jenner's first vaccination of James Phipps, Clinch writes as follows: "I am obliged to you for what you say respecting your late discovery. Why not send me a sketch of your idea in print?" And, in the context of this story, a rather important sentence: "I have not had an opportunity of seeing any new publication in a medical way since I left England."

A letter from Dr. Jenner to the Rev. Clinch dated at Cheltenham, July 15, 1800 (the same month in which Benjamin Waterhouse was to vaccinate his own children in the United States), refers to the books which he had previously sent on the subject and sends additional threads of vaccine:

    "My pursuit, Thank God! is constantly making those advances which increase my fame, and will certainly add to the stock of human happiness by eradicating one of the greatest of its miseries. Lest the threads sent you by George should not take effect, I have enclosed a bit more, newly impregnated with the cow-pox virus; use it like a smallpox thread, but small as it is, divide it into portions, that you may multiply your chances of infecting. Wet it before insertion, or rather moisten it.

    "My acquaintance with your Governor commenced from my having inoculated his infant daughter, I hope you have got my books on this subject."

The books to which he refers were donated to the Boston Medical Library by an Irish physician, Dr. Michael F. Gavin who died in 1915, and are now preserved for posterity. Jenner's "An Inquiry . . ." was published in 1798 and no doubt his friend Clinch would have received one of the first copies in view of his earlier request for information in print. It seems unlikely that Jenner would have sent books describing a new procedure without also providing a supply of vaccine with which to experiment. If this assumption is correct, it could conceivably date the first vaccination as early as 1798.

A later letter dated January 25, 1802, Poole, is of interest in that the information contained therein was used in Jenner's petition to the British House of Commons requesting some recognition of his discovery of smallpox vaccine. After lengthy investigation of Jenner's claims; Parliament in 1802 voted him the sum of 10,000 pounds, and again in 1806 a grant of 20,000 pounds. In this letter Clinch clearly states that he began by inoculating his own children, utilizing vaccine sent to him by Jenner's nephew, Rev. George Jenner, who had ministered in the neighbouring area of Harbour Grace, Newfoundland:

    "I will hasten to tell you the general result of my practice in the vaccine disease in the Island of Newfoundland. I informed you in a former letter that the matter sent me by your nephew produced the effect completely, although from the date it was kept full four months.

    "I began by inoculating my own children and went on with this salutary work till I have inoculated 700 persons of all ages and descriptions; many opportunities soon offered at St. John's (where the smallpox was making great ravages) which afforded convincing proofs of the safety of the practice to the inhabitants and servants in Trinity Bay; they saw (at first, with astonishment) that those who had gone through the Jennerian inoculation, were inoculated with the smallpox, and exposed to the infection without the least inconvenience; and I hope it will every day become more and more extensive, as nothing can be more certain, than that it will annihilate the worst and most dreadful of all disorders, the smallpox."

Baron Jenner's biographer, presents a slightly different account of vaccination:

    "Dr. Jenner while diffusing the variola vaccinae to other parts of the world, did not forget our colony of Newfoundland. He had sent matter through his nephew George to his friend Clinch at Trinity. This gentleman used it successfully himself, and carried it to St. John's where it was extensively employed by Mr. McCurdy. He, in a letter to Admiral Pole dated December 19, 1800, mentioned that the practice, notwithstanding some untoward circumstances with had occurred among those who were first vaccinated at Portugal Cove, was followed up with the greatest success. He sent matter to Ferryland, Placentia and Halifax."

The request from Governor C. M. Pole to Dr. McCurdy to vaccinate the inhabitants of Portugal Cove, and the letter in reply, were located, and are reproduced in their entirety as follows:

    Fort Townshend
    3rd. Oct., 1800

    Sir: It appears from a Petition presented by the Inhabitants of Portugal Cove to the Magistrate of this District, that they are under great apprehension of the evils attending the catching Small-Pox the natural way, from a knowledge that some belonging to that Cove have been inoculated at St. John's.

    Strong conviction in my own mind of the importance which the rendering general the inoculation from the Cow Pock virus would be to mankind as adopted, by Dr. Jenner and others; learning from the Rev. Mr. Clinch that you have taken much pains in the subject, induces me to solicit you to undertake the alleviating the apprehensions of those people by the disbursation of this blessing to all those that are not obstinately determined against it, which I hope will be found to be very few indeed.

    I shall be glad to hear your opinion and determination as soon as convenient.

    I am,
    Sir
    your most obedient
    Humble Servant
    C.M. Pole

    Dr. McCurdy
    St. John's
 

(continued next week)
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Contributed by: James Butler (1998)
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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