Over the last two years we have all heard lots about vaccination because of the Covid pandemic. Vaccination, a technique developed in the eighteenth century, helped medical science to make jabs against the virus quickly in 2020. This was not an option available for thousands of individuals infected with Spanish Flu just after World War I.
Doctors tried to find solutions to eradicate harmful viruses such as smallpox from the early 1700s. A freemason, William Perfect, Provincial Grand Master of Kent from 1794 until 1809, popularised a vareolation method which helped to stop the spread of this harmful disease. Contagions caused foetal deformities, blindness in children and disfiguring facial scars known as pock marks.
Another freemason Edward Jenner, included in the Familiar Faces display at Freemasons’ Hall, developed an inoculation technique in 1798, which made it easier to vaccinate people against smallpox. The Royal Jennerian Society, founded in 1803, vaccinated many thousands of individuals in London and beyond at no cost to recipients. The Society’s resident inoculator was the unconventional Dr John Walker, who did not always follow Jenner’s strict guidelines.
Jenner insisted on Walker’s resignation in 1806 but the inoculator set up a rival organisation, the London Vaccine Institution, which merged with the Royal Jennerian Society in 1813. Walker was a successful fundraiser, helping the London Vaccine Institution to distribute free supplies of the smallpox vaccine throughout England and Wales, Europe, the colonies and America. He claimed that he vaccinated personally over 100,000 individuals.
Numerous supporters funded the Institution, which distributed the vaccine to doctors world-wide, with detailed instructions about the inoculation technique. In return, donors received a richly decorated diploma as an honorary member, such as this one given to the active freemason and jeweller, Thomas Harper, in March 1830.
Later vaccination programmes have connections with freemasonry across the globe. While Medical Director of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in America, Hart E van Riper served as Worshipful Master of Madison Lodge of Perfection, Wisconsin. Von Riper supported research by the virologist, Jonas Salk, who developed the vaccine against Polio in 1954. Like the earlier programmes against smallpox, Salk’s work helped to eradicate this devastating and life-changing illness.
Museum of Freemasonry found remarkably few references in its resources to the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, which cost the lives of at least 50 million people worldwide, with high mortality rates in the 20-40 year age group. In an attempt to keep a record of freemasonry’s support for those affected by Covid in the last few years, we have collected emails, newsletters, websites and other digital media from many Provinces.
We are also collecting physical items. It’s not too late to send us scrubs, facemasks, empty containers, badges, patches and other items with square and compass logos or names of Provinces or Districts to add to our collections. These will all help to tell the story of freemasonry and Covid in years to come.