Glasgow Smallpox Scare, 1950

As the UK embarks on a massive programme of Covi19 Vaccinations, some of us of a certain age, may remember a time as a child where another programme of mass vaccinations was rolled out in Scotland

It started in March 1950 when Indian Sailor Mussa Ali arrived in Glasgow, ill with suspected chickenpox. However, doctors soon discovered it was actually Smallpox and it would go on to infect 19 people and kill 6. The dead included a doctor, four nurses and a laundry maid, all of whom had some direct contact with Mr Ali in hospital.

Fears over the potential scale of the outbreak sparked a major response from public health officials. And the kind of moves they undertook back then have striking parallels some 70 years on.

Visiting was immediately banned at hospitals across the country and a manual tracing system eventually tracked down 1,971 possible contacts of those who caught the disease. These included family members. Suspected contacts were taken to their local hospitals for checks while their homes and clothes were disinfected.

As fears spread to Lanarkshire, the major focus was to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible. A total of seven emergency clinics were set up across Glasgow. These centres were open 12 hours a day with the busiest injecting some 600 people an hour. The outbreak was front page news. 

In the first 12 days an estimated 250,000 people were immunised in Glasgow and a total of 300,000 had the vaccine by the time the outbreak was declared over.

Speaking of that scary time in 1950, Hamish Dow told me, “The local focus was on vaccinating people in Hamilton because of the death of Dr Fleming, a Hamiltonian who treated the Indian sailor who brought the disease to Glasgow. “

“However, the vaccination programme must have spread to Blantyre soon after the needs of Hamilton had been addressed. I recall being vaccinated around that time. My family and I went to a surgery or shop in the tenement building located on the north side of Glasgow Road between the Bethany Hall and the Broadway Cinema.”

“I still have burned in my mind the blue flame that sterilised whatever it was that scratched the skin on my upper arm. I was only 3-4 years old at the time but the memory remains fixed in my mind. Something akin to being branded.”

Does anybody else have early recollections of folk queuing up for this inoculation?

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  1. Yes I remember it, we went to the clinic across from Calder street school to have It

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