Heat and Vaccine Lymph: How warm climates disrupted British imperial public health practices, 1880-1903


By Kristin Brig

In his 1894 Reports on the Public Health in the British Cape Colony, Dr. Alfred Gregory spotted a frustrating problem with the colony’s supply of vaccine lymph: hot temperatures were killing the lymph’s cowpox viruses, rendering the lymph inert and unusable.[1] Up to this year, Cape imported all its lymph from London-based pharmaceutical manufacturers. There were no local suppliers. Without lymph, imperial doctors had two options: either perform arm-to-arm vaccination and risk cross-infection with diseases like leprosy, or simply not vaccinate and open the door to smallpox epidemics.

Today, we often think of hot climates as havens for bacterial and viral growth. Warm temperatures and even the human body serve as heated insulators for microbiological proliferation. However, late nineteenth-century British imperial doctors like Alfred Gregory witnessed a contrary process regarding vaccine lymph. Rather than encouraging lymph’s viral growth, heat was in fact killing the cowpox viruses…

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