Tue | Aug 3, 2021

Alfred Dawes | The great Jamaican vaccine experiment

Published:Sunday | May 9, 2021 | 12:22 AM

As the conspiracy theories abound about COVID-19 vaccines being experiments, and those who take the shot are nothing more than guinea pigs, we are often reminded by antivaxxers of unethical clinical studies on black people. The most famous of these was the Tuskegee syphilis studies where dozens of black men were left untreated while rigorously studied to evaluate the natural history of syphilis even while potent treatments were readily available.

The treatments were withheld by the clinical investigators even as the men grew sicker and sicker from their illnesses. That study has become the rallying cry for those who have espoused antivaxxer conspiracies. Outside of the Tuskegee study, there are many more examples of unethical human experimentation throughout modern history, not just on blacks.

When we think of bikini bodies a certain aesthetically pleasing image comes to mind. However, the real bikini bodies, those who lived on the Bikini Atoll during the years of the United States’ nuclear weapons testing programme, were horribly poisoned by radioactive fallout. For years while the radiation’s lasting effects caused various cancers and other diseases, they were studied to document the effects of nuclear bombs on survivors. It took significant external pressure before they were relocated from their paradise-turned-atomic-wasteland and for many it was far too late. Their poisoned bodies and those of their children are a living testament to the horrors of the boundaries of scientific studies.

Josef Mengele, the notorious ‘Angel of Death’, worked at Nazi concentration camps during World War II. His work on prisoners often led to their murder to facilitate post-mortem examinations of their corpses. His grisly experiments on twins are some of the most horrific examples of human experimentation in history. Unfortunately, he evaded capture and lived to a ripe old age, a far different fate from his mostly child subjects.

Jamaica had her own experience with unethical experiments on humans, but it never made it to the history books. It was by chance that I stumbled on the documentation of experimental vaccination of slaves in 18th-century Jamaica. We were never taught anything in medical school about vaccination existing before the work of the English doctor, Edward Jenner. But 30 years before Jenner’s first inoculation to prevent smallpox, Jamaica was the site of one of the largest experiments on vaccination.


Between 1775 and 1782 there was a major outbreak of smallpox in the western hemisphere. The overworked, undernourished slaves who lived in miserable conditions were highly susceptible to the scourge. At the time isolation of infected slaves was the only way that the planters were able to preserve their human stock.

The idea that taking the fluid from a person infected with smallpox and inoculating a healthy person in order to stimulate an immune response made it to the Americas by way of the African slave Onesimus. This process called inoculation refers to the instillation of smallpox virus under the skin of non-immune individuals. The inoculator used a lancet contaminated with fluid from a ripe smallpox pustule from someone with the disease to make a small stab in the skin of the healthy person. The resulting infection was mild but allowed the inoculated individual to mount an immune response and form antibodies to the virus, thus resulting in immunity the way modern vaccines work.

The procedure was not entirely safe and about two to three per cent of inoculated persons contracted the smallpox or other diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis from the contaminated fluid. Despite this ‘inconvenience’ to the slaves, the outbreak in Jamaica in 1768 saw several doctors experimenting with different inoculation techniques and protocols.

Dr John Quier of St Catherine was the most prolific of the plantation doctors who experimented on slaves. Quier was a British doctor who lived in Jamaica at the time and inoculated around 850 slaves with smallpox. His work was published in the 18th-century equivalents to our modern-day medical journals and presented at the Royal College of Physicians, influencing thought and research on what would later be the field of immunology. At the time the only consent required was that of the slave owners as slaves had no rights to their own bodies. There were, of course, complications and Quier reported in a letter two miscarriages in slave women after inoculations.


In his diary, plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood described in great detail how he oversaw the inoculation of his slaves and even his own mulatto son. Dr Drummond, a plantation doctor, made several visits to Thistlewood’s estate located in the area of modern-day Big Bridge and Llandilo in Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland. “Between 9 and 10 a.m., Dr Drummond came and inoculated 17 of my Negroes, each arm between the elbow and shoulder; just raised the skin with a lancet dipped in the matter and let it dry,” he wrote. Eleven days later, Drummond returned to examine the slaves and found them to be in good health. He was even able to determine who already had antibodies from prior exposure to smallpox.

It is apparent that other doctors outside of Quire and Drummond practised inoculation of slaves. Another of Thistlewood’s doctors, Dr Bell, performed mass inoculations of the local slave population several years later. These experimentations on slaves and the knowledge gained in the field of immunology predated the work of Edward Jenner, the so-called father of vaccines, by 30 years. Yet we never heard of the sacrifice that our ancestors made in contributing to the field of immunology and infectious diseases research.

As we debate whether we are modern-day human subjects, let us on either side of the fence pay homage to our ancestors who unknowingly and unwillingly laid the foundation that even made this discourse possible. We owe it to them to include their story in our history.

- Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic, and weight-loss surgeon; Fellow of the American College of Surgeons; former senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Public General Hospital; former president of Jamaica Medical Doctors Association. @dr_aldawes. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and adawes@ilapmedical.com.