Service Above Self

How public service stopped a potential smallpox epidemic in its tracks.

Service Above Self
A transmission electron micrograph image of the variola virus, the cause of smallpox. CDC/ Dr. Fred Murphy; Sylvia Whitfield.

Dr Thomas Philson held many posts in Auckland in the second half of the nineteenth century. One of his roles was Health Officer to the Port of Auckland. He was appointed on 20 January 1860 and held the position until shortly before his death in 1899. In this role, he was required to inspect inbound ships and their passengers.

Around Christmas 1872, Dr Philson ‘spiritually and medically’ treated a case of smallpox in a sailor from the mail-steamer Nebraska which had arrived from Sydney.

‘When the poor fellow succumbed to the loathsome disease, [Dr Philson] coffined the body with his own hands in order to prevent any spread of the infection, remaining away from his family for some weeks.'
Image Description
Thomas Moore Philson. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-CNEG-C6037.

'For these services, which prevented any possibility of the spread of the contagion, he received the thanks of the Provincial Council and a handsome gratuity’ of £100 in 1873 [$16,730 in 2023 terms].’

There were three other fatalities from this infection and three non-fatal infections. Philson had been a victim of smallpox earlier in his life which would have given him some protection against re-infection.

The cottage ‘in the Hospital paddock’ where Dr Philson treated this case of smallpox was transferred (under the threat of imminent demolition) in 1983 from the Auckland Hospital site to Mount Albert and was rebuilt there. It is now used as an artist’s studio.

Image Description
The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!—vide. the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society Print (color engraving) published June 12, 1802 by H. Humphrey, St. James's Street.

This cartoon was inspired by early controversy surrounding inoculation against smallpox using the less harmful cowpox. Prior to this, inoculation was done with the smallpox virus itself.

The cowpox virus was introduced under the skin, and the cartoon shows the inoculated developing cow-like features. In reality, introducing cowpox provided very sufficient protection against smallpox.

The word vaccination comes from the Latin for cowpox: vaccinia.