Robert D. Hicks, PhD, Director, Mütter Museum/Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, contributes today’s blog post. In preparation for an exhibit on Civil War medicine at the Mütter Museum in 2012, Dr. Hicks has been researching, among other topics, the occurrence of spurious vaccination in the Civil War. Spurious vaccination was smallpox vaccination that either did not produce immunity in the recipient or that resulted in a transfer of a communicable disease such as syphilis. While physicians in the United States frequently used humanized smallpox vaccine during the Civil War, French physicians at the time were popularizing a mode of smallpox vaccination that relied solely on serial propagation of vaccine in cows. Human transmission of smallpox vaccine disappeared by the turn of the century.
According to Joseph Jones, MD, Professor of Physiology and Pathology, University of Nashville, vital medical research was “brought to a sudden and unexpected close, by the disastrous termination of the civil war.” Writing in 1866, in a radically changed and changing South in the aftermath of the Civil War which ended the previous year, Jones expressed frustration that a Confederate medical investigation on smallpox vaccinations “was destroyed during the evacuation of Richmond.” Confederate medical records in Richmond, Virginia, disappeared after the victorious Union Army torched the city. Vexed by these circumstances, Jones surveyed physicians throughout the South who served in the Confederate Army to elicit data about “spurious vaccinations” and resurrect the destroyed report. Spurious cases were smallpox vaccinations of soldiers deemed “accidents” because they conferred no subsequent immunity to the disease or, compounding misery, introduced other diseases incident to vaccination, particularly syphilis. Jones paints a dire portrait of a Confederate Army that experienced far too many deaths and disabilities due to spurious vaccinations. More