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Issue 95 - Citizen Jaffray

Scotland Magazine Issue 95
October 2017


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Citizen Jaffray

James Irvine Robertson tells the tale of a key figure in Scotland's medical history

The year 1789 marked the beginning of the French Revolution. As in the rest of Europe, the British Government was determined to prevent the contagions of liberty, equality and fraternity from infecting the body politic. But its ideas were widely disseminated in Britain. Reform clubs sprang up advocating political change, particularly universal suffrage, and campaigning against corruption. A British Convention was organised in Edinburgh over the winter of 1793–1794. The delegates addressed each other as ‘Citizen’ and adopted the forms of the French National Assembly. The authorities broke it up and its leaders were arrested and transported. Habeus Corpus was suspended and a Sedition Act was passed. A network of spies reported on the activities of supporters.

William Jaffray was one of them. He was a weaver who spent his life in a cottage in the village of Cambusbarron on the edge of Stirling. He was a popular man, somewhat eccentric, interested in new ideas and was proud to be known as the Citizen. He was also an early proponent of the umbrella. On one occasion that he was on his way to Glasgow, travelling on the deck of a canal boat, a fellow passenger was a young black woman. They struck up a conversation. She was a slave who had been brought over to look after her master’s family in Fife. Her master was in the cabin. They were going to Greenock where she would board a ship back to the plantation in Jamaica that was her home. Did you know, asked the Citizen, that slavery was illegal in Scotland? She didn't. Was she content to return to servitude? Not particularly, but that's where her friends and family were. Here she was an utter stranger.

If she wished, said the Citizen, he would help her. She did. Once in Glasgow, she sneaked away from her master and Jaffray took her before a magistrate who recognised her freedom officially. Before he returned to Stirling he found her a job and somewhere to live.

The agents of the law came to arrest him, not for this incident in particular, but because he was considered a subversive influence generally. Unfortunately, they took his brother by mistake and the unlucky fellow languished in jail for several months. The Citizen knew that both of them were innocent of any crime and made no attempt to flee or hide — he even visited his brother in prison — but he was left alone.

Later, a parcel arrived at the post of ce in Stirling addressed to him with the stamp ‘On His Majesty’s Service’. The postmaster sent a warning to the Citizen suspecting it contained some official sanction against him. But it didn’t.

You see, the Citizen led a double life. He had built up a little weaving business that he ran from his cottage but his main interest was stamping out smallpox, employing the recently introduced inoculation techniques. At the time, this terrible disease was said to be responsible for 25 per cent of childhood deaths. Those who recovered could suffer blindness or lifelong disfigurement. But people were not convinced that the treatment would prevent smallpox and, anyway, a doctor would charge half a guinea for administering a dose and that was half a week’s wages.

The Citizen, now about 50 years old, began by inoculating his own son and some neighbours. The method involved scratching the skin and introducing a mild strain of smallpox that built up the body’s natural immunity, but it did carry significant risks. Then Jenner invented vaccination, which used cowpox, which was much less dangerous and built up the same immunity. Jaffray convinced most of the 500 or so people in his community to submit to his ministrations, all except two families that lived either end of the village, who said they preferred to trust in divine providence. When the next epidemic swept the district nobody in Cambusbarron succumbed to the disease — except the two households that had resisted vaccination, where each lost a child.

This is where the parcel at the post office came in. Through a local doctor, a fellow radical, Jaffray had been put in touch with James Bryce in Edinburgh, later to be President of the Royal College of Surgeons, who provided him with the instruments and the cowpox material necessary for his campaign. In 1808 the government had founded the National Vaccine Establishment and it was this body that had sent the Citizen the official package. In time, Jaffray’s reputation spread.

He set up an office in his cottage and, on a Friday, he would vaccinate anyone who came to ask it.

Unsatisfied with this, he began to tramp the streets of Stirling and travel into the surrounding countryside, sometimes walking a dozen miles or more to a village where he would unpack his kit. He used quills covered in dried cowpox crusts, a drop of water to dissolve the matter and a scalpel to nick the skin and insert it. He took no payment and would not even accept a decent meal, since he knew the extent of the poverty of those amongst whom he worked.

On a good day he could treat 140 children and, though he slowed a bit towards the end, Jaffray kept up his vaccination programme for more than 20 years. The National Vaccine Establishment awarded him a silver cup to show their appreciation and, later, they awarded him a rare honorary membership. He never changed his radical views but his close contact with such an important government body led the authorities to treat him as a privileged person and they left him alone. He died in 1828 at the age of 79. Over his life, William Jaffray vaccinated some 16,000 children and was reckoned to have saved 4,000 lives. In his honour, the Stirling Council has recently introduced the William ‘Citizen’ Jaffray Award, which recognises members of the community who have made a significant contribution to local society.

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