Nelson urged mistress to vaccinate their daughter against smallpox, museum finds

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The victor of the Battle of Trafalgar may have been a naval genius. But it has now emerged that Admiral Lord Nelson was also uncommonly wise when it came to another subject: vaccination.

In a letter to his mistress, model and actress Lady Emma Hamilton, dated July 1801, Nelson urged her to use the then newly developed smallpox vaccine to protect their baby daughter, Horatia. The timely piece of 220-year-old correspondence was unearthed in the National Maritime Museum’s archives earlier this year.

A 1799 portrait of Nelson. In his letter, he wrote of hearing of ‘a full trial with the cowpox’ which proved to be a success.
A 1799 portrait of Nelson. In his letter, he wrote of hearing of ‘a full trial with the cowpox’ which proved to be a success.

In 1798, less than a decade before Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar, a British victory and a key moment in the Napoleonic Wars, scientist Edward Jenner had developed a successful defence against smallpox – the world’s first vaccine.

By infecting people with cowpox, a less-deadly variant that affected animals, Jenner discovered a safe form of protection against a virus that at the time killed up to 10% of the population and infected even more.

At the time, vaccines were viewed with suspicion. Those intentionally infected with smallpox itself, via pus from a live sore, often died. This was the fate of King George III’s son Octavius when he was just four years old.

Nelson, however, appeared nonplussed. Writing to Hamilton, he stated that the side-effects of the cowpox vaccine were mild. ‘The child is only feverish for two days; and only a slight inflammation of the arm takes place, instead of being all over scabs,’ he wrote.

Rob Blyth, curator at the National Maritime Museum, speculated that Nelson would have heard about the miracle of ‘inoculation’ from a doctor at the captain’s table aboard his ship.

‘Nelson is a man who acutely understands what risks mean,’ Blyth said. ‘He is dealing with risk every day at sea, whether it’s life or death or injury from shots, cannonballs, splinters.’

He added: ‘I think Nelson can probably, as a naval man, make a risk assessment about the vaccination better than others could at the time.’

The tone of the letter was gentle, with Nelson telling Hamilton to ‘do what you please’, perhaps reflecting his awareness of being away from home and that his illegitimate daughter’s wellbeing was entirely the responsibility of her mother.

It is unknown how Hamilton, who died in 1815, responded to her lover’s request. However, their daughter Horatia lived to be 80 years old.

This is an article from the April/May 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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