24th – 30th April 2017 marks World Immunisation Week. It aims to raise awareness of the critical importance of full immunisation throughout life. The Belfast Charitable Society and it’s work within the Poor House was often to the fore of medical advances, and this was true of their work with the development of immunisation in the 18th and 19th century.
Smallpox was a common disease in 18th Century Belfast, with outbreaks causing disfiguration and even death. It was a highly contagious air-born disease which caused misery and suffering to many. The Poor House of Belfast was often to the fore of medical advances and they worked with doctors to eradicate this disease, firstly from the Poor House and then to wider Belfast.
In 1777 it was noted in our Minutes that Smallpox was in the neighbourhood and it was known that many children within the Poor House had not yet had the disease. Therefore, it was requested that the children should be “enoculated” and Mr Stevenson was to “do the needful.”
Mr Stevenson was Dr Robert Stevenson, a physician to the Poor House. He treated a whole range of illnesses within the House and was called on to set broken legs, treat cancers, fevers and all the normal aliments within the infirmary. Dr Stevenson successfully carried out several inoculation programmes within the Poor House.
In 1782 Dr William Drennan made a recommendation to the Board of the Belfast Charitable Society proposing a public inoculation programme within the Poor House which should be supported and financed by the Society. Dr Drennan is best known by many for his role within the United Irishmen and for his poetry. He is widely credited with being the first person to refer to Ireland as the “Emerald Isle.” Dr Drennan was also a very gifted physician and the Board agreed to the proposal. Smallpox inoculations were carried out in the Poor House for many years. It is thought that the method of inoculation was some form of direct arm-to-arm contact with the smallpox infection.
It was 1798 before Edward Jenner published his paper on smallpox and how injections of cowpox could prevent the disease. In 1800 it was proposed to the Board, this new form of inoculation should be trialled, “provided the parents of such children freely consent thereto.” Smallpox inoculations continued throughout the time of the Poor House.
The Belfast Charitable Society were always forward-thinking in their approach to medical advances, with inoculation and immunisation just one of the methods used to try to improve the lives of the people of Belfast.