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Smallpox map before treatment

​Smallpox map before treatment

Smallpox in London Seminar

In November 2014 London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) marked the end of a major conservation and access project with a seminar on what has been commonly known here at LMA, as the Smallpox Maps. Howard Benge tells more.

Five giant maps (GLC/DG/AE/ROL/001-005) have been conserved and digitised with funding from the Wellcome Trust through its Research Resources in Medical History scheme. They show the outbreaks of smallpox from the 1870s epidemics in relation to isolation and fever hospitals. There is some evidence of their purpose from letters and papers from the Metropolitan Asylums Board (MAB/1718-1718A). In a letter dated 29 November 1881, Nathaniel Baker, Secretary of the Royal Hospital’s Commission, instructed W. J. Webb, Clerk of the MAB, on the creation of the maps, “At a meeting of this Commission… I was directed to write to the Metropolitan Asylums District Board and to ask them to prepare maps which would show from what parts of the Metropolis the cases of smallpox came.”

In particular they were looking at:

  1. The epidemic of 1871-2
  2. The epidemic of 1876
  3. The epidemic of 1880
  4. One of the Inter-epidemic periods, 1873 – 1875

Hospital admission books for these periods were used to identify smallpox cases and mark on an Ordnance Survey map, as near as possible, where each patient came from. The “marks”, or dots as seen on the maps, were colour coded, relating to the isolation hospital where the patients were treated. Radius lines indicating distance from the hospitals were drawn on the maps.

The maps represent many aspects of public health including epidemiology, mapping, and social attitudes to hospitals and treatments. The seminar which looked at contextualising the maps included a range of speakers and encouraged discussion around how the maps and other public health collections can be used today.

Logie Barrow, retired professor, University of Bremen, set the scene with his talk “Topographies of fear: Victorian smallpox and isolation-hospitals.” He looked at England in the nineteenth century focusing on smallpox, provision for treatment and vaccination. The methods of English vaccination at that time were often questionable, their manner of enforcement resoundingly self-defeating and the length of such immunity was officially overestimated for longer than in other countries.

Logie discussed the opposition from local people and politicians to isolation hospitals in London, which he frequently referred to as “Nimby-ism”. Some of this was perhaps legitimate, due to un-hygienic practices as opposed to the disease being carried on the air.

Chris Grundy, Lecturer in Geographical Information Systems, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) presented “Public health mapping, where do the London smallpox maps fit in?” His specialism is mapping disease and he is currently involved with mapping the Ebola outbreaks. He described how mapping plays a key role in public health around the world. In particular, Chris focused on the history of public health mapping and the methods used to produce maps both past and present. While the methods may have changed, the reason maps are produced and how they are used now is surprisingly similar to the smallpox maps.  He concluded with contrasting the smallpox maps with the current situation and why they are particularly resonant at this time of a major Ebola outbreak in Africa.

Smallpox map after treatment

​Smallpox map after treatment

​Dr. Heidi Larson, also from LSHTM, is an anthropologist who currently leads a team studying issues around public trust in vaccines and the implications for immunisation programmes and policies. Her presentation was via video, as she was working in South Africa that day. She focused on contemporary global anti-vaccination trends and highlighted the parallels with the historic anti-vaccination attitudes towards smallpox. The anti-vaccination movement was at least as strong in England towards the end of the nineteenth century as it is today, and it is very likely that the London epidemics would have been less severe if vaccination had been more widely accepted.

The final part of the seminar was a discussion about the future of the maps and science based archive collections. The maps are so big that it makes it almost impossible to bring them out on a regular basis. However, they are available digitally, which offers many opportunities. How will people interact with them around the world? Will it help LMA tell the stories of smallpox in London? Can they be used to support public health programmes both domestic and internationally? Anne Barrett, College Archivist & Corporate Records Manager, Imperial College London, and Howard Benge, LMA, led the discussion.

Chris Grundy pointed out that digital media is an excellent way to communicate and learn about new information. He also stressed the importance of explaining that the data, which is currently available in the form of maps, must contain explanation of the purpose of its production.

Philippa Smith, LMA, went further, in that digitisation will allow people to link various data from different places together, for example people could easily investigate a Booth’s map alongside John Snow’s map of Soho. The digital world would allow people to plot stories in this way and increase engagement with communities. LMA potentially holds data on individual cases represented on the smallpox maps. Howard Benge described one example of a distressing case of a 19-month old boy, whose father had been advised not to have him vaccinated. The boy eventually died of the disease. Howard Benge projected that “It will be possible to link all this information to the spots on the map, to build up a detailed picture of the epidemic at a case by case level, and even to link to other socio-economic information”. Chris Grundy added, “This detail should make the maps even more useful for research, but data protection and privacy laws would make it impossible to do anything similar with a map produced today.”

There was a collective desire to develop more projects around the smallpox maps beyond the digitisation for general access. LMA may investigate further funding for public programmes around the maps to increase awareness and understanding of smallpox in London.

04 February 2015
Last Modified:
27 September 2018