Killing the speckled monster

From the Oxford Times: January 2000

They used to call it the Speckled Monster, for it was a bigger killer than heart disease and cancer are today. The defeat of smallpox is being celebrated this year by the Royal Mail with a special Millennium stamp. But only now is the heroic role of a small village near Bicester and a shamed churchman being recognised in the story of the smallpox vaccine, which went on to save tens of millions of people from death or disfigurement.

About 200 years ago the villagers of Finmere agreed to be human guinea-pigs in a high risk experiment to test the vaccine's effectiveness. Remarkably, the brave villagers were not putting themselves in the hands of a doctor or some leading Oxford University medic. The great experiment was carried out by the Rector of Finmere, Robert Holt, who was totally untrained in medicine.

Holt was to die a bankrupt at the age of 41, having misappropriated village charity funds. And his story has been uncovered by local historian Andy Boddington, while he was researching the history of Finmere to mark the Millennium. Mr Boddington, a 44-year-old science consultant, became so obsessed with Holt that he even flew to America to examine documents now in the Huntington Library in California.

Mr Boddington says: "Robert Holt is Finmere's greatest enigma. He came from a poor family in Lancashire and studied classical and biblical studies at Brasenose College, Oxford." After becoming the Rector at Finmere in 1790 he learnt of the search for a smallpox vaccination from the founder of St Bartholomew's Medical School, John Abernethy.

The immunity that cowpox offered against smallpox was already well known among country folk, But in 1796 Edward Jenner had translated folklore into scientific experiment by famously inoculating an eight-year-old boy with a cowpox vaccine.

Holt took it upon himself to take the research further by seeking to involve his village in what by the standards of the time was a giant human trial. It is hard to imagine the terror that smallpox provoked in the 18th century. Holt himself described the fear the disease struck in Finmere: "The smallpox is so much dreaded in this neighbourhood that all intercourse with the surrounding parishes is interrupted when anyone is infected with it." But he also knew what he was asking of local families: "The novelty of the vaccination experiment made me apprehensive that my parishioners would not readily submit to an operation which they might consider dangerous in its consequence. My fears were soon removed as I found all impressed by the belief that the cowpox caught in the natural way was a certain preventive of the smallpox."

Holt began his experiment with 25-year-old Elizabeth Smith. He carefully recorded: "I inoculated her in both arms to ensure the probability of infection. On the sixth day she complained of headache and pain. She had no pustules, except where I made the incisions. She had no indisposition... and on the 13th day the pustules became dry and peeled off." Within two months he had inoculated 300 people with cowpox matter. Mr Boddington, who now hopes to write a book about the Finmere Experiment, says: "His supply of vaccine was limited and he increased it my taking matter from the arms of people already vaccinated. The villagers recognised the benefits of vaccination but it was not a pleasant experience."

There were many scares. Village baker Thomas Sheen suffered a painful inflammation while Holt feared that ten-year-old William Neal had developed smallpox. As it turned out William died in 1870, aged 81. The results were published in the pioneering Medical and Physical Journal in December 1799. Holt's diligent work earned him praise from eminent surgeons, like John Abernethy, who saluted Holt as: "A gentleman, whose character is highly estimable for benevolence, learning and love of science." Mr Boddington, who is still finishing off his village Millennium history, says: "It was a bold, potentially dangerous, experiment but villagers were keen to take part. Smallpox often killed and survivors were left badly scarred and many blinded. Vaccination was a risk worth taking. Fortunately, no-one died in Holt's experiment."

But the rector's own end was to be tragic. He had a taste for good living, and, for a time, he and his wife Sarah socialised with George Grenville, Marquis of Buckingham, one of the richest men in England. Robert Holt was borrowing heavily even before he arrived in Oxfordshire. By the end, with five children, he was reduced to helping himself to the village's funds. Yet on his death in 1802, few voices were raised in opposition to him being buried in the nave of St Michael's Church, Finmere. Mr Boddington says: "Until our recent work, Holt would have been remembered only as a disreputable rector, who spent funds intended for village apprentices. Now we know he was a local hero, even if he was unable to manage his finances." The vaccination was widely used until the 1960s, with smallpox eradicated by 1977.