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Admiral Nelson letter urged mistress to give daughter smallpox vaccine

Newly unearthed letter from Admiral Horatio Nelson to his mistress Lady Emma Hamilton in 1801 reveals how he urged her to give their baby daughter the recently developed smallpox vaccine

  • Admiral Horatio Nelson’s letter urges mistress to get their daughter vaccinated
  • Letter from 1801 supports the Jenner’s smallpox cure when many were sceptical
  • Edward Jenner found people were immune to smallpox if they caught cowpox

A newly unearthed letter from Admiral Horatio Nelson to his mistress Lady Emma Hamilton has revealed how he urged her to give their infant daughter the recently developed smallpox vaccine 

The 1801 letter, discovered in the archives at the National Maritime Museum, makes no mention of a dangerous mission to France Nelson was due to make, but instead focuses on the health of his daughter, Horatia.

It was written just three years after Edward Jenner discovered milkmaids who developed cowpox through working close to the animals seemed to be protected from smallpox, the human form of the disease.

In a letter to Lady Hamilton, Admiral Nelson wrote: ‘The child is only feverish for two days; and only a slight inflammation of the arm takes place, instead of being all over scabs.’ 

A letter from 1801 shows Admiral Horatio Nelson urging his then-mistress to have their daughter vaccinated against smallpox, at a time when people were sceptical about innoculation

At the time many were sceptical about the use of vaccines – after one attempt to innoculate children by deliberately infecting them with smallpox led to the death of King George III’s son Octavius at the age of four. 

Rob Blythe, senior curator at the National Maritime Museum, shared the letter with The Guardian, revealing a passage where he professes his love for his lover, Lady Hamilton.

Though both were married, neither had a legitimate child. 

Following his death in 1805, Nelson’s father took in Horatia and raised her among his family. 

He said: ‘Nelson is a man who acutely understands what risks mean. He is dealing with risk every day at sea, whether it’s life or death or injury from shots, cannonballs, splinters… I think he can probably, as a naval man, make a risk assessment about the vaccination better than others could at the time.’

Mr Blythe expects Nelson may have heard about Jenner’s vaccine while at the captain’s table. 

Nelson urged his mistress, Lady Hamilton to innoculate their daughter, Horatia, against the smallpox virus 

He told The Guardian: ‘Doubtless the ship’s physician would have been kept relatively up-to-date with the latest medical developments, and when the conversation lagged into another retelling of the Battle of the Nile, the ship’s physician may well have said, “Have you heard about inoculation?” just to try to move everyone on to a different subject’.

The letter was one of of more than 2,000 acquired by the National Maritime Museum in 1946.

A transcript of the heroic admiral’s correspondence was published in 1814, but this letter had until then gone unnoticed.

SMALLPOX: THE HISTORY OF THE KILLER VIRUS

  • The first known victim of smallpox was Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt, who died in 1157BC and whose mummy still bears the scars of the disease.
  • When the Spanish took it into Hispaniola – now Haiti and the Dominican Republic – which they settled for sugar cane plantation in 1509, it killed every one of the 2.5 million natives within a decade.
  • More than 200 years ago, physician Edward Jenner made a crucial-discovery which led to the first vaccine. He found that milkmaids who developed cowpox through working close to the animals day after day seemed to be protected from smallpox, the human form of the disease.
  • In Britain, the disease was endemic until 1935.
  • The last major outbreak in Europe was in 1972 when 20 million were vaccinated after a pilgrim returning to Yugoslavia from Mecca infected 175 people.
  • Doctors waged a vaccination campaign to wipe out smallpox which succeeded by the late 1970s.
  • All nations were asked to destroy stocks of the virus or hand them to high-security installations in the US or Russia. It is feared terrorists may have got supplies from Russia in the 1980s.

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