An Unexpected Discovery
On 24 November 2010, Senior Archivist Janette Pelosi made an unexpected discovery. As she was looking through the papers of the Colonial Secretary from 1841, she came upon a small pink parcel, pinned to a letter. The letter was titled Respecting Vaccine Virus and was written on 17 May 1841 by JV Thompson, Deputy Inspector General of Hospitals at the time.
This was no ordinary letter. Not only is it very rare to find three-dimensional objects in the State archives, but the letter and associated correspondence piqued Mrs Pelosi’s attention. Reading further she noted references to smallpox and the colony’s vaccination program. The correspondence also involved the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, and the Colonial Secretary, Edward Deas Thomson.
Janette Pelosi deduced that the parcel probably contained a sample of the cowpox vaccine, which was commonly used to vaccinate against smallpox. Senior Archivist Wendy Gallagher contacted the Centre for Population Health at Western Sydney Area Health Service in Penrith — just a short distance from the State archives at Kingswood. Although it seemed very unlikely that there would be any health threat Ms Gallagher wanted to ensure there was no potential hazard. State Archives and Records NSW was advised to send the sample to Nepean Hospital at Kingswood for further analysis. On 26 November 2010 the sample and copies of the accompanying letters were delivered to the Public Health Unit at Nepean Hospital.
The good news is that there was absolutely no evidence of smallpox or any other infectious disease in the sample.
However there was a lot of interest in the correspondence related to the sample because of the historical context it provided about protecting the population against smallpox at that time. Dr Kathryn Weston was an infectious diseases officer in the Public Health Unit when the specimen was discovered at State Archives and Records NSW. Dr Weston’s interest in historical aspects of infectious diseases was shared with microbiologist Dr James Branley, Head of Infectious Diseases at Nepean Hospital, and they wrote an article for the Medical Journal of Australia with Wendy Gallagher.
The article is titled Smallpox vaccination, colonial Sydney and serendipity and is authored by Kathryn M Weston, Wendy C Gallagher and James M Branley and was published in the Medical Journal of Australiaon Monday 10 March 2014 and in hard copy form on 17 March 2014.
As a precautionary measure, the colonial vaccine specimen now resides in a biohazard facility at Westmead Hospital.