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A Historical Note on the Rev. John Clinch
First Canadian Vaccinator
(Part 3)

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

(transcribed from The Fisherman's Advocate, September 11, 1970)


    Dr. McCurdy's reply dated October 3, 1800, reads as follows:

      Sir: I had the honour of receiving your letter of this days date signifying a wish that I would Inoculate the inhabitants of Portugal Cove with the vaccine virus. Highly convinced of the great importance of such a discovery must be to mankind, and the manifest utility likely to accrue from it, nothing can yield me more satisfaction than being able to meet your wishes in putting into execution your truly philanthropic intentions.

      I mean to set out tomorrow morning for the spot together with my worthy friend Mr. Clinch, and fully convinced as will from my own observation as a relation of facts from many medical Gentlemen of the strictest veracity of its wonderful and singular property of destroying the variolous pabulum in the human constitution; I shall use every argument in my power to remove their prejudices and prevail upon them to embrace the salutary effects of a prophylactic means greater than any other in the annals of Medical History, and I hope that the happy consequences in lieu of any other advantage will yield me a tenfold compensation on the occasion.

      I have the honour to be
      your Excellency's
      most obedient, and
      most humble servant
      Jno. McCurdy
      His Excellency, Governor Pole

    Edward Jenners' nephew, the Rev. George Jenner, played an important part in the further promotion of vaccination. George was also on friendly terms with John Clinch, and no doubt this was one of the factors in the former's decision to leave the security of England, and later to minister to the settlers in Newfoundland. A letter from Edward Jenner to Clinch dated February 7, 1789, states: "George has at length left us to take leave of his friends elsewhere before he departs for your snowy shores. 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 . . " This offer was probably in the form of an apprenticeship or medical partnership in Trinity. However, the first factual evidence of his presence in Newfoundland is an entry in the Harbour Grace Baptism and Marriage Register dated August 20, 1795. The last entry is on October 21, 1798. During this time the Rev. George Jenner ministered as the Anglican Minister in Harbour Grace, and we are told "he met with more favour from the people than his predecessors." His departure from Newfoundland is probably related to the need to assist Edward Jenner, his uncle, for together they spend the first six months of 1800 in the difficult task of promoting the new discovery in London. Other correspondence also tends to support this view.

    The following extract of a letter from the Rev. Clinch to the Rev. George Jenner was published in the Medical and Physical Journal in May 1801 and was obviously utilized to advance the cause of vaccination and to counteract the adverse publicity of some of its detractors. In connection with the sequence of events related to the introduction of vaccine to Newfoundland, the letter is important in that it does confirm that Clinch began the work by vaccinating his own children. It also supports the tradition handed down from one generation to another in Trinity that Clinch vaccinated his nephew, Joseph Hart, and later exposed him as he says, to a "contagious atmosphere" as proof of the efficacy of the vaccine to the inhabitants. His own faith in the vaccine must have been firmly established by then.

      "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 Small-pox 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 Cow- pox being as absolute preventive of the Small-pox, 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 within whose knowledge it came; and most of those who had not previously gone through the Small- pox, were eager to shield themselves against that dreadful malady by adopting the Vaccine Inoculation. Just before my arrival at St. John's, a woman was inoculated for the Small-pox and, four days afterwards, her infant at the breast, with 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. Shortly after my return to this place the Small-pox 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 Cow-pox and were thereby prepared to resist the influence of the Small-pox. Several of my Cow-pox patients attended this man during his illness, but escaped the infection of his disease."

    Clinch expressed concern at the practice of indiscriminate inoculation in Newfoundland by inexperienced persons and adds that "we are much indebted to the zeal and exertion of Dr. McCurdy, surgeon of St. John's, for the rapid progress the Vaccine Inoculation has made in Newfoundland. Dr. McCurdy, I understand, received his virus from Dr. Jenner through the medium of our worthy and respected Governor, Admiral Pole."

    W. R. LeFanue Librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons, England, who wrote the book "A Biobibliography of Edward Jenner" credits Clinch with the first vaccinations in North America, and dates it as early as 1798. We have seen that Jenner sent his book "An Inquiry . . " on the subject, published in that year, to Clinch, and it seems very unlikely that a book describing the method of vaccination would have been sent without also including the materials. Confirmation of this belief does not seem possible until missing correspondence is located.

    The subject of this treatise continued his medical and missionary work in Newfoundland until his death on November 22, 1819. His last personal letter to the Secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel on July 2, 1817, provides an illuminating glimpse of the life of the clergy in Newfoundland at that time. He refers to the inclemency of the winter, aggravated by the scarcity of provisions which amounted in many places to absolute famine. His own health was failing too, as 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." A letter from his son to the Rev. A. Hamilton a year later shows that the condition had worsened and that his father had suffered a stroke. "I am much concerned to inform you of the illness of my father, the Society's missionary in this district. He was seized about six weeks ago (October 1818) with a sudden giddiness which was followed by a loss of motion in his left arm and leg, the use of which is partially restored to him . . . I hope a kind providence may return him to his health again."

    Unfortunately this was not to be, and he was buried about a year later by his affectionate flock under the alter of the old church, the First St. Paul's at Trinity. Two churches have been built on practically the same site, and now the grave lies in the shadow of the church, covered with a common graveyard slab which bears this modest inscription: "In Memory of John Clinch who died on November 22, 1819, Aged 71 years."

    Reprinted from C.M.A. Journal


Return to Clinch Index

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

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