Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow

Smallpox Vaccination Register

Smallpox was one of the most widespread diseases in the 18th and 19th centuries, and one of the most common causes of death, especially in children and infants. The disease was particularly prevalent in Glasgow where over-crowding, poor sanitation and diet led to a rapid increase in the transmission of the disease, particularly amongst the poor.

The world’s first ever vaccine was developed for smallpox. It was discovered by Edward Jenner in 1796 and the College’s role in the story begins soon after.

In 1799, the first successful vaccination in Scotland was performed by a member of the College, William Nimmo, here in the city of Glasgow.

In 1801 the College opened one of the very first vaccine centres in the UK, vaccinating many thousands of local people throughout the 19th century. The College was the only professional medical body to deliver a public vaccination programme with the poor of the city being vaccinated for free. It provided this vaccination service until 1896. Two members of the College were delegated to administer vaccines each Monday, from 12pm to 1pm. In the first five years of the programme, approximately 10,000 people were vaccinated. Dr Robert Watt’s mortality statistics for Glasgow published in 1813 showed that the percentage of those children under ten dying from smallpox fell from 19 per cent in the period 1783 to 1800 to 6 per cent between 1800 and 1812.

This register contains details of the first patients to be vaccinated. Many were children, some as young as just 2 months old. The name of the child, their parent(s) name and occupation, and place of residence are given – these details are often accompanied by comments and illustrations made by the doctors, recording the process and effectiveness of the vaccine. The first patient to be vaccinated was 4 month old, John Falconer from New Wynd, Glasgow.

The register is an important record not only of public health and early vaccination in Glasgow but also of the people of the city.