11:38pm Thursday 09 July 2020

smallpox vaccine specimen discovered in NSW archives

Two small glass specimen slides that were sealed, wrapped in a piece of paper and sent to the then New South Wales Governor more than 170 years ago, have been unearthed in government state archives, and form the basis of a research paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

The slides — believed to contain one of the oldest samples of vaccine against the deadly smallpox virus — and the accompanying correspondence dating back to 1841, were discovered by accident in the archives. But they proved to be vital clues that help to illustrate the origins of public health initiatives in Sydney.

The slides were originally sent to NSW Governor Sir George Gipps, as evidence of a supply of vaccine material to protect the young colony from the scourge of smallpox.

When the specimen was discovered at the State Records Authority in Kingswood, western Sydney, in November 2010, it was transferred to the Public Health Unit at Nepean Hospital in Penrith, where Dr Kath Weston was working as a senior infectious diseases surveillance officer.

As a precaution, the specimen was analysed by experts led by microbiologist Adjunct Associate Professor James Branley, from Pathology West and Director of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at Nepean Hospital, and tests conducted at Westmead Hospital confirmed it did not contain the smallpox virus.

But Dr Weston and Dr Branley, both with an interest in the history of infectious diseases, were intrigued by the find and decided to explore deeper. Their subsequent research through the National Library led to the uncovering of a series of letters between Gipps and doctors in the colony. The exchanges paint a picture of the early steps taken to protect against smallpox, which led to the inception of the state’s first public health authority.

Dr Weston, now a Senior Lecturer in Public Health at the University of Wollongong’s Graduate School of Medicine, details the historical significance of the find in an article co-authored by Dr Branley, and Wendy Gallagher from State Records Authority of New South Wales, published in the Australian Medical Journal recently. 

“This is a story which demonstrates the importance of vaccination – not only for protecting against a terrible and deadly disease, but also in ridding the world of that disease,” she said.

Coincidentally, the vaccine sample was found in the same week as the death of Australian Sir Frank Fenner, a celebrated public health champion of the global eradication of smallpox.

Interview opportunities:

Dr Kath Weston – Senior Lecturer Public Health, Graduate School of Medicine, UOW. Contact – Zoë Taylor, UOW Media and PR Manager, +61 405 014 028 or [email protected].

Wendy Gallagher, Acting Manager, Archives Control & Management, State Records Authority. Contact – Dom Costello, DFS Media, +61 2 9937 2258 or [email protected].

Adjunct Associate Professor James Branley, Pathology West and Director of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Nepean Hospital. Contact  – Monique Wakefield, Communications & Marketing Manager, Pathology West, +61 428 810 027 or [email protected].

Background notes:


·  Smallpox was a viral disease caused by the Variola virus. It has been eradicated worldwide.
·  It was transmitted from person to person via droplets from infected people.
·  It had a high death rate, being fatal in up to 30 per cent of cases.
·  Vaccination was a key tool in the WHO-led eradication of smallpox.
·  Smallpox was officially declared eradicated in 1979.
·  Australian Sir Frank Fenner was one of the champions in the global eradication of the disease.


Source: World Health Organisation 

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