Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Smallpox vaccination in the satirical work of James Gillray

Godfrey Pearlson
United States


The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!
—vide. the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society
James Gillray, 1757-1815

James Gillray (1756-1815) was a skilled artist/draftsman and a full-time caricaturist, immensely popular in his own day, both in terms of sales of his prints and engravings in London and of contemporary reproductions of his work in Europe. A highly innovative printmaker, mostly of copperplate etchings enhanced with varied engraving techniques, he experimented constantly with novel processes, as delineated in considerable detail by Draper Hill(1976xxiv-xxix). In Gillray’s peak output years of 1795 – 1803 he produced hundreds of classic often virulent political cartoons in an age where such work was considerably less restrained in its subject matter and ability to comment on personal deficiencies of and scandal surrounding prominent political and other figures. These encompassed the British Royal family, leading politicians at home and abroad, and members of the clergy. He is widely regarded as the father of the political cartoon. He also lampooned social events and familiar characters in society of the day in Britain and Europe. Much of his output has a distinct contemporary appeal. Gillray was a fellow-student of William Blake at London’s Royal Academy of Art, where he attended anatomical lectures and dissections of the eminent surgeon William Hunter; detailed, accurate anatomy features in some of his prints. His caricatures are immediately recognizable stylistically from their characteristic combination of giddy spontaneity and often extraordinary attention to detail. The works were designed to be tinted with watercolor washes and sold directly from the printshop above which he lived with its proprietress Mrs. Humphrey. It was said of his caricatures that “in this art he has no rival; and the exquisite tact with which he seized upon points, both in politics and manners, most open to ridicule, is only equaled by the consummate skill and wit with which he satirized them” (Hill 1976).  In an odd mixture of admiration and disparagement, Gillray was referred to by a less admiring and more restrained early Victorian generation as a “caterpillar on the green leaf of reputation.” Gillray drew on and parodied themes of the serious art of day and his thematic content often draws on biblical, classical, and Miltonian references.  Politically, he was likely initially sympathetic to the democratic ideals espoused by the French Revolution,  but was gradually alienated by the excesses of the reign of terror and ultimately suborned by the Tory government of Pitt at a time when he was vulnerable to legal action resulting from parodies of senior church members (Hill 1966).

Gillray’s father was a one-armed war veteran of the French wars and an adherent of the Moravian brotherhood, whose intensely strict, stark religious background; belief in the “….fundamental depravity of man, total worthlessness of human life, and the anticipation of death as a glorious deliverance from terrestrial bondage” and emphasis on the senselessness of striving after the pleasures of the flesh was part of the artist’s childhood (Hill 1976, p xviiii). The brother to whom he was closest died of tuberculosis when Gillray was a child – James being the only one of five children to live to adulthood. He was taken from this restricted and gloomy family at age five to be educated in an equally strictured and pleasure-denying Moravian brotherhood school. Emerging from this background as an adult, Gillray never married and is described by contemporaries as somewhat introverted, eccentric, and self-contained. Although detailed records are scanty, he may have drunk alcohol to excess but was certainly subject to episodes of sustained activity and enthusiasm  alternating with periods of depression, fatigue, and worries about his health (Hill 1976, xxiii). Together, these features mark him as possibly suffering from bouts of what would currently be described as bipolar illness. In 1807, the onset of poor health including failing eyesight, markedly depressed mood, and intermittent delusional beliefs led to his intermittent enclosure in an attic, and his artistic output essentially ceased after 1811. After three likely suicide attempts (including a failed effort to jump from his attic window), he was finally successful in taking his life in 1815 (Hill 1966).

During Gillray’s lifetime smallpox infected more than half Europe’s  population. It had about a  one-in-five mortality and was widely feared as a cause of death and facial disfigurement. Although inoculation of unaffected individuals with material from smallpox lesions was known to provide protection from the disorder, morbidity and mortality from this procedure was significant, and it was rarely used in England. Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823) the English physician, naturalist and medical researcher, pioneered the use of inoculation for smallpox (Bazin 2000). Interestingly, during his medical training, Jenner attended lectures of the same eminent surgeon, John Hunter, who taught anatomy to Gillray. At the time, it was well known that the milkmaids, famed for their fair complexions, were generally immune to smallpox lesions. There was speculation that their frequent infection with cowpox (a similar but much less virulent and disfiguring disorder with insignificant mortality, contracted commonly by exposure to blisters on cows’ udders) was responsible for the milkmaids’ smallpox immunity. Jenner’s innovation was to successfully vaccinate individuals with material from cowpox lesions to demonstrate that this procedure was safe, and by later inoculating the same persons with material from actual smallpox lesions to show that immunity to smallpox had been induced. He also demonstrated that the cowpox pus could subsequently be effectively inoculated from person-to-person, rather than needing to be gathered from infected animals. These observations lead ultimately to widespread vaccination with cowpox. In fact the word ‘vaccination’ is derived from the Latin ‘vacca’, for cow, although this familiar word now has broader usage . Jenner’s findings were published in 1798. In a parallel to modern misunderstanding of the mechanism and effectiveness of immunization techniques, (the contemporary ‘anti-vaxer’ movement), there was a degree of popular resistance to inoculation and rumors circulated about its ill effects (Bazin 2000).

Gillray’s burlesque on vaccination, ‘The Cow Pock – or – the wonderful effects of the new inoculation!’-vide the publications of the Anti-Vaccine Society, is dated June 12, 1802. This print ridicules rumors promulgated by vaccination opponents, circulated in a series of pamphlets (what would nowadays be termed urban mythology), and depicts the inoculation of a series of individuals at London’s Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras. The brown-coated physician is most likely Edward Jenner (or perhaps his colleague George Pearson) (Wright 2012). Here Jenner aided by a deformed and gnomish young assistant, is administering the vaccine by incising the forearm of the fearful young woman in the foreground. Following dosing of the vaccine, the recently inoculated patients in the room are seen to be variously developing bizarre cow-like tumors, manifesting bovine features and appendages including horns, with some members of both sexes giving birth to calves. The boy assistant holds a frothing bucket labeled “VACCINE POCK hot from ye COW”; pamphlets protruding from his pocket are labeled “Benefits of the Vaccine”. The tub on the desk at the left is labeled “OPENING MIXTURE” (laxative), while an adjoining bottle is labeled “VOMIT”. A clyster (irrigating syringe often used for enemas) is at the front of the desk. Another irrigation device and a close stool (commode) are visible in the left corner of the print. The painting on the rear wall tellingly depicts worship of the Golden Calf. Gillray simultaneously portrays the anxieties of the opponents of vaccination while ridiculing their ill-informed and histrionic ideas.

Jenner was honored in his lifetime for his work after initial caution on the part of the medical establishment. He was granted considerable sums of money to promulgate vaccination to eradicate smallpox and was ultimately appointed physician to King George IV in 1821. Starting in 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) initiated a wide-ranging , well-funded, successful  global campaign to eradicate smallpox through systematic vaccination. As a result, over 150 years after Jenner’s efforts, smallpox is currently the only such naturally occurring disease to be successfully eliminated . The last endemic smallpox infection was recorded in 1977 (Bazin 2000).



  1. Bazin H. 2000. The eradication of smallpox: Edward Jenner and the first and only eradication of a human infectious disease. Elsevier Science, New York, NY.
  2. Hill D. 1966. Fashionable Contrasts: Caricatures by James Gillray. Phaidon Press, London UK.
  3. Hill D. 1976. The Satirical Etchings of James Gillray. Dover Publications, Mineola NY.
  4. Wright T. Reprinted 2012. Historical and descriptive account of the caricatures of James Gillray. Comprising a political and humorous history of the latter part of the reign of George III. Forgotten Books, Charleston SC.



GODFREY PEARLSON, MD, is a professor of Psychiatry and Neurobiology at Yale University school of medicine who directs a neuropsychiatry research center dealing with data from functional neuroimaging and genetics in neuropsychiatric disorders. As well as dealing with medical images on a daily basis, Dr. Pearlson has been interested in 18th century satirical images since high school and is an avid amateur photographer.


Spring 2015  |  Sections  |  Infectious Diseases

One response

  1. Switch the c and the p on “cow pock”
    Khahahahaajsanaja loser

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