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  • Unaccountable Subjects:Contracting Legal and Medical Authority in the Newgate Smallpox Experiment (1721)
  • Spencer J. Weinreich (bio)

The individuals credited with introducing smallpox inoculation to Great Britain make up an august company: Sir Hans Sloane, baronet and president of both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society, who led his colleagues as they tested this new defence against a terrifying scourge. Charles Maitland, a distinguished surgeon, who conducted the initial experiment and became the most famous inoculator in Europe. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a gentlewoman of formidable wit and force of personality, whose advocacy helped secure elite opinion in favour of the procedure.1 Caroline of Ansbach, the prodigiously learned princess of Wales, who won royal backing for the project. Less familiar are seven humbler personages: John Alcock, John Cawthery, Richard Evans, Elizabeth Harrison, Ruth Jones, Mary North, and Anne Tompion – inmates of Newgate Prison who underwent the first experimental trials of inoculation in the summer of 1721.

If the popular imagination has forgotten the prisoners, scholars have not, but historian of medicine Adrian Wilson's sparse account is representative of their marginal place in the literature. The experimenters 'selected six prisoners, all condemned to death, all in good health, and offered them repeal from execution if they would submit to an experiment in inoculation. It was not difficult to get the prisoners to agree to this: certain death was exchanged for the uncertain'.2

The truth is altogether more complex. There were seven prisoner-subjects, though Jones seems to have formed a cohort unto herself. The inmates were no longer facing execution when the experiment commenced, having by then received pardons conditional on transportation to the Americas. If this fact does not radically alter the power dynamic, it suggests that we have paid the prisoners too little attention, too readily assumed their lack of agency, and perhaps taken other things as 'certain' that were not so. More concretely, attending to transportation reveals striking parallels between its legal and conceptual dynamics and those of the experiment. Much as historian Alexa Green has shown of the nineteenth-century 'ideas and practices of labor' that structured the relationship between the pioneering physiologist William Beaumont and his patient Alexis St Martin,3 the entanglements of the Hanoverian inoculation trials with the state, the individual, public opinion, [End Page 22] and medicine become clearer if we take the yards of Newgate as something more than a backdrop.

This essay undertakes such a rereading, revealing many of the experiment's distinguishing features – the fusion of public and private authority, the subjects' remarkable degree of agency, and the ensuing political controversy – to be hallmarks of eighteenth-century British governance. The practicalities of transportation fell to private contractors, whose role as deputies of the Crown was mirrored in the empowerment of the experimenters, who took on custodial and legal responsibilities in addition to their scientific investigations. Yet authority, whether wielded by the state or its contractors, whether expressed in knowledge-making or criminal sanctions, turns out to rely on the co-operation of those below. The Newgate inmates' consent, while not 'free', could not then and cannot now be taken for granted.4 Not only were the experimenters forced to accord some autonomy to the subjects, the rhetorical contestation of the process, its results, and their significance further dispersed intellectual and political authority. The Newgate cohort reveals that the medical subject is always also the political subject, but such scripts are intrinsically partial and liable to disruption; the eighteenth-century state, even with its reach extended by myriad contractors and deputies, was never hegemonic.

UNCERTAIN DEATH

The reports of the prisoners' imminent deaths are greatly exaggerated, though the error is understandable. Official memoranda, newspapers, experimenters, observers, and polemicists all spoke at the time of the subjects as facing execution;5 historians have, quite reasonably, followed suit.6 And it is true that with the exceptions of Cawthery and Jones – both sentenced to transportation – the entire Newgate cohort had indeed been condemned to death in the first instance (see Table 1).7

On 4 July, however, Charles Townshend, secretary of state and the second man in the government of the day, wrote to William Thompson, recorder...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1477-4569
Print ISSN
1363-3554
Pages
pp. 22-44
Launched on MUSE
2020-08-07
Open Access
No
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