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To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate? That has always been the question. It is particularly timely these days as people seek, or seek to avoid, vaccinations against Covid-19. Back in 2014, local records archivist Callie Freed highlighted the timeliness of smallpox epidemic outbreaks documented in local records collections. She noted that contemporary scientists around the country had been studying smallpox scabs found in these types of collections in their efforts to develop a new vaccine to thwart potential future outbreaks or biological terrorism. Little did we know that in 2020 the world would be plagued with a new kind of epidemic, for which there were no hundred-year-old scabs to study.

During the early months of 2021, widespread availability of and access to one of the Covid-19 vaccines has varied depended upon a number of factors, including the locality in which one lives. This was also the case over one hundred years ago in Virginia. Indeed, a small collection of New Kent County Smallpox Epidemic Records from 1895 to 1912 reveals interesting parallels to today.

In January 1895, Dr. John D. Turner and Dr. James Gregory were responsible for personally vaccinating hundreds of individuals throughout the New Kent County. According to their handwritten records, together the two doctors reported vaccinating 1,635 men, women and children in the county. In addition, 396 people were not vaccinated because they either were not at home, or claimed underlying medical conditions preventing vaccination, or had already been vaccinated, and 36 people refused outright to be vaccinated.

That means that of the 2,607 total number of people with whom they made contact or made efforts to contact, almost 80% received the smallpox vaccine, about 19% had reasons not to be vaccinated other than refusal, and about 1% refused. Not a bad local vaccination rate by today’s standards.

In fact, Dr. Gregory was tasked with one particular area: St. Peters District, which, according to US Census records, had a population between 1,424 in 1890 and 1,212 in 1900. Depending on which census figure one uses, his thirteen-page list of names from 1895 indicated he had interacted with at least 90% of the population in his district, which means most, if not all, residents had the opportunity to receive a vaccination.

Panoramic view of Dr. Gregory’s 9-foot-long vaccination list, 1895.

# vaccinated # people not vaccinated for cause or already vaccinated # people who refused vaccination

Total individuals offered

Dr. Turner’s List 700 7 28 735
Dr. Gregory’s List 935 389 8 1332
Total 1635 (80%) 396 (19%) 36 (1%) 2,067

Dr. Turner’s list, on the other hand, did not specify a particular district, but was divided into “whites” and “colored” (hereafter referred to as Black). This differentiation provides interesting statistical insights. Of the Black population with whom he made contact or made efforts to contact, 76% received vaccinations from him, as opposed to just over 50% of the white population. As with Dr. Gregory’s list, it is not clear whether some people had been vaccinated previously, or whether they had underlying conditions that discouraged vaccination, but the records illustrate the seriousness of the effort to vaccinate as many residents as possible.

Dr. Gregory’s List (breakdown by recorded race)

Race

# vaccinated # people not vaccinated for cause or already vaccinated # people who refused vaccination

Total individuals offered

“white” (4 pages) 168 159 2 329
“colored” (9 pages) 767 230 6 1003
Total 935 389 8 1332

In a 24 January 1899 postcard to New Kent County clerk John N. Harris, resident S.C. Waddell’s thoughts might parallel those of some folks today regarding vaccination efforts. As the threat of smallpox still loomed, Waddell was concerned about local folks living in remote areas, without convenient access to vaccinations.

My dear Sir, There are three colored children on this place, who have not been vaccinated, & probably a good many others in the neighborhood, & we feel anxious to know whether the county has made, or is willing to make arrangements for having this important matter attended to. We are such “Shut Ins” that we know little of what is going (on) around us, but see enough in the papers to make us uneasy about Small Pox & think that you might be able to exert influence to have the matter attended to…Dr. W. could vaccinate these children himself if his hands were not so tremulous.

Whether the vaccinations were administered is unclear, but an invoice to the county by Dr. H.U. Stephenson fifteen months later in April 1900 listed 31 people vaccinated and one person treated for smallpox.

Smallpox was not eradicated, however. Another hefty vaccination effort took place over a decade later, in August 1912, according to invoices from two doctors. Dr. C.L. Bailey vaccinated 440 individuals, and submitted his list of names and his expenses to the county for reimbursement. Another doctor submitted an invoice for 450 people, although a list of names was not among the paperwork.

For people who were not vaccinated for medical reasons or who possibly had already been vaccinated, Dr. Gregory listed them by “whites” and “colored”, using this verbiage.

While the success of Covid-19 vaccination drives or the future of variant strains and/or booster vaccinations is uncertain in these unprecedented times, there is much to be learned from extant records of vaccination efforts such as these from over a hundred years ago. Accurate electronic recordkeeping and data archiving regarding Covid-19 vaccinations continues to be a serious matter, and many people who receive their vaccinations value their paper vaccination cards, even posting photos of them on social media. One can only imagine what today’s vaccination records might mean for scientists, historians, and archivists a hundred years from now.

Tracy Harter

Tracy Harter

Senior Local Records Consulting Archivist

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