Smallpox and Cowpox under the Southern Cross: The Smallpox Epidemic of 1789 and the Advent of Vaccination in Colonial Australia


In histories of smallpox and vaccination, little attention has been paid to their progress in the southern latitudes. In this paper, I focus on the appearance of smallpox around Sydney Cove in 1789 and the introduction of cowpox (vaccine) to New South Wales in 1804. I demonstrate the connections, historical and virological, between the two events and examine the role of variolation in the spread of smallpox and in anticipating vaccination. I argue that imported "variolous matter," perhaps obtained in Cape Town, may have been the source of infection in the catastrophic epidemic among the Aborigines in 1789. I likewise examine the means by which vaccine was brought to Australia in relation to comparable initiatives around the Indian Ocean. I assess the significance of the early history of vaccination in Australia in relation to subsequent developments and as a remarkable demonstration of the global reach of the new prophylactic.