Monkeys, cows and the Trinity connection

·5 min read

When Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said last week the province has to ration the vaccine for monkeypox because supplies are limited, she may not have realized the irony of her statement.

That’s because the smallpox vaccine — which is what’s used to inoculate against monkeypox — made its North American debut in the British colony of Newfoundland more than 200 years ago.

The concept of vaccination was born in 18th-century Gloucester, England, when locals noticed that milkmaids who contracted a mild rash from milking cows seemed to escape getting smallpox, a significantly more devastating disease.

A young doctor named Edward Jenner told his mentor, John Hunter, that he thought there may be something to the anecdotal evidence.

“Don’t think. Try the experiment,” Hunter reportedly told him.

John W. Davies, in a 1970 Canadian Medical Association Journal article, describes what happened next.

“After a long period of observation and collection of facts in his country practice, Jenner finally followed this advice, and on May 14, 1796, performed his first vaccination on a country boy, James Phipps, using matter he had obtained from a pustule on the hands of one of the milkmaids, Sarah Nelmes," Davies wrote.

"Six weeks later, July 1, 1796, he inoculated James with pus from a case of smallpox. This inoculation failed to take, indicating the boy's immunity to smallpox, and vaccination as we know it today was born.”

There is evidence that farmers had already experimented with a crude form of inoculation before Jenner did his work, but he is still credited with its formal discovery.

Since the Latin for smallpox is variolae, Jenner called this milder version variolae vaccinae (literally, “cow smallpox” or cowpox), and now you know where the term vaccine comes from.


So, where does Newfoundland enter the picture?

In his childhood, Jenner had a classmate named John Clinch.

“As a young boy, he and Jenner spent their early years at school together, but little is known of John Clinch's early life,” Davies writes.

Both also studied medicine in London under Hunter.

According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Clinch then practised medicine in Dorset, where he learned about the colony of Newfoundland through Benjamin Lester, merchant of Poole and Trinity.

In 1775, Clinch travelled to Bonavista, and moved to Trinity eight years later.

But he felt a need to heal souls as well as bodies. After being ordained in England in 1784, he returned to Trinity as Rev. Dr. Clinch, missionary and medicine man.

Learning of Jenner’s successful inoculations in his homeland, he obtained a supply of the vaccine in a crystallized state from Jenner’s nephew.

Medical ethics as they were, Clinch first tried the new treatment on his wife’s nephew, then moved on to members of his direct family.

“I began by inoculating my own children, and went on with this salutary work, 'til I had inoculated upwards of 700 persons, of all ages and descriptions,” he later wrote in a testimonial letter to the British House of Commons.

“Any 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 the disorders, the smallpox.”

Hans Rollmann, a retired Memorial University religious studies professor, says the inoculations took place during the height of a smallpox epidemic in 1799-1800.

“This first inoculation in Newfoundland is said to have preceded the introduction of the vaccine in the United States by three years,” Rollmann wrote.

Clinch may have pioneered vaccination in North America, but he couldn’t seem to do anything about a “fierce catarrh” he suffered himself in the spring of the year.

Clinch, it seems, had hay fever.

“If this malady should dare to molest you next year, retreat, seek the milder shores of Old England, and leave the land of snows and ice to the bears, for whom nature made it,” wrote his old friend Jenner.

Clinch soldiered on, and served in many leadership roles in the community, as was the custom of the day for authority figures. He became a salaried judge of the surrogate court of Newfoundland, and at other times acted as a magistrate, surveyor, and collector of customs.

He died in 1819 at the age of 71, and was buried under the altar of St. Paul’s Anglican Church. The old building is long gone, and the altar now sits in the churchyard of the current church.

But Clinch’s legacy doesn’t end there.

He also remains one of the few settlers with a direct connection to the lost tribe of the Beothuk.

In 1791, hunters in the Trinity area tracked down and murdered a family of Beothuk who they claimed were stealing gear from the community.

A 12-year-old girl, Oubee, was spared and taken captive.

She was cared for by the family of Thomas Stone, an agent for the Trinity merchant Benjamin Lester. Stone took her to England the following year, and she died shortly thereafter.

But before that, Clinch had an opportunity to meet with her and document several words of the Beothuk language.

You can watch a theatrical portrayal of Oubee in the one-woman show “Stolen Sisters,” starring Deantha Edmunds, in the Heart Garden at Government House every evening (except Aug. 24) at 7 p.m. until Aug. 28.

And now the circle is complete.

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram