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Student Art Series: Nicholas Dellasanta on the work of James Gillray



Regarded as being one of the two most historically influential cartoonists (along with William Hogarth), James Gillray is often remembered as the father of the political cartoon. His sense of the absurd, deep understanding of audience, and an expanse of resource helped him successfully execute satirical works calling the king, prime ministers, and generals to account. Accompanying this oeuvre of political satire is a miscellaneous series of caricatures. Despite their minor historical importance compared to the political series, many of these are more readily intelligible while remaining consistently amusing. One such caricature, The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! gives humorous expression to the popular dread of vaccination at the time.

Here, Nicholas Dellasanta shares his interpretation of the work:

The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! was created by James Gillray at the midpoint of his caricature career in 1802. The print was distributed in response to Edward Jenner’s creation of the smallpox vaccine and the backlash delivered by his colleagues. Jenner, the central figure in the brown suit, administers a smallpox vaccine to a woman that closely resembles a milkmaid in Gillray’s colored etching.

Mortality rates of 35% during smallpox epidemics during and prior to Jenner’s career made the introduction of a preventive vaccine substantial. Jenner was the first physician to effectively correlate the absence of smallpox among milkmaids to their prior infection with cowpox. He tested such a hypothesis on an eight- year-old boy, James Phipps, using a cowpox sample from milkmaid Sarah Nelms in 1796.1 His method proved highly effective and was soon widely adopted.

A young boy, possibly a reference to Phipps, assists Jenner as he inoculates a patient. The boy holds a pot that reads, “vaccine pock hot from ye cow,” and a wears a jacket reading “Pancras.” This is a reference to the hospital, St. Pancras, which supported Jenner’s practice. His back pocket holds a note that claims, “benefits of vaccine process.” These so called “benefits” are the acquisition of bovine features, witnessed in the transition of individuals before and after receiving the vaccine (i.e. a pregnant woman births a cow, a butcher sprouts horns). Interestingly, a farmer leans against a pitchfork in the print. Unbeknownst to Gillray, this agricultural tool closely resembles a critical tool for smallpox eradication developed nearly a century later in 1961, the bifurcated needle. A print of the golden calf from the Exodus account of the Israelites hangs above Jenner, mocking his supposed desire for wealth. Jenner, who received £10,000 from Parliament for his invention, was judged harshly by his colleagues who claimed that he was profiting off a widely understood notion. These condemnations were maintained until the quantifiable efficacy of the vaccine became apparent during later outbreaks. Complete eradication of smallpox was made possible in 1980 as a result of Jenner’s vaccine.


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