This Week in History


Vaccination Pioneer in Canada

This story was initially published in 2004

On November 22, 1819, Reverend John Clinch, a medical pioneer and a missionary, passed away. As a doctor, he gave the first smallpox vaccinations in North America, which would stop the spread of this fatal disease that had wreaked havoc since the 17th century.

York Factory, 1853, where early quarantine efforts in the summer of 1782 helped to prevent a smallpox epidemic prior to the introduction of the vaccine.
© Library and Archives Canada / R9266-1615 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana
Born in 1749 in Cirencester, England, John Clinch studied medicine in London with Edward Jenner, who would later discover the vaccination. In 1775, Clinch left his country of birth and settled in Bonavista, Newfoundland, where he practised medicine and became an Anglican lay preacher. In 1783, he moved to Trinity, a fishing village on the east coast of Newfoundland, and five years later he was appointed a missionary by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, a society founded in England.

In addition to being a missionary, Clinch served in various roles during his life: judge, magistrate, surveyor and customs collector. He dedicated most of his time, however, to healing the sick. In 1798, his friend Edward Jenner made an astonishing discovery: inoculation with the vaccinia virus - an infectious disease found primarily in cows - immunized humans against smallpox. This idea had not, however, been tested in clinical trials. When Clinch learned about it, he decided to test the vaccine on people from his village, who trusted him. It was a success! He was thus the first person to introduce the smallpox vaccine in North America.

Clinch soon became very busy. By January 1802, he had already vaccinated about 700 people of all ages. His many interventions proved the effectiveness of the vaccination, which became standard practice during the 19th century and helped control smallpox epidemics. Clinch devoted himself to his medical practice and missionary work until his death in 1819.

In Canada, the last major outbreak of this disease was in Montréal in 1885; claiming more than 3,000 victims. Fortunately, the incidence of this serious disease decreased during the 1920s, but it was not eradicated until 1979.

In 1964, Reverend John Clinch was designated a national historic person and a commemorative plaque was erected in his honour in Trinity, Newfoundland, in 1968.

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