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Official verdict

An unprecedented document signals the start of immunization in Brazil back in 1804

Reproductions: Oswaldo Cruz Monumenta Historica – volume ICartoon from O Malho, 1904: one hundred years later, smallpox was still haunting the populationReproductions: Oswaldo Cruz Monumenta Historica – volume I

The history of the introduction of vaccines in Brazil emerged from the files of IHGB, the Brazilian Historical and Geographic Institute in Rio de Janeiro, in an unprecedented document. While carrying out research at this hundred year old institution, science historian Myriam Bahia Lopes, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, and Ronald Polito, an historian and writer, found a 19-page manuscript by Joaquim Manuel de Macedo and Joaquim Norberto de Souza Silva. The 1859 text has no heading, but its library index card describes it as an “Opinion regarding the introduction of vaccines in Brazil”.

Authors Macedo and Norberto, from the then Subsidiary Commission of IHGB Historical Works, were informed that they had been assigned this task by the Ministry of Business of the Empire, by order of Emperor Pedro II. The Viscountess of Santo Amaro, godchild of Marshal Felisberto Caldeira Brant, later the Marquis of Barbacena, asked for permission to install the bust of her father in the Vaccination Institute room, claiming that he had been the true introducer of vaccinations in Brazil in 1804. It so happens that Antônio Mendes Ribeiro claimed this precedence for his father, chief surgeon Francisco Mendes Ribeiro de Vasconcelos, who apparently had conducted the first inoculation in 1798. Both parties produced corroborating letters.

The invention of vaccines is ascribed to the English physician Edward Jenner, who conducted the fist test in 1796. He observed that a disease in horses’ hooves, called grease-heel, was transmitted to cows’ udders by human hands. Pustules appeared around the infected teats that contaminated man in turn. The infection caused a disease that was not very virulent but that left milkmaids immune to smallpox, a far more aggressive disease. To prove this, the doctor collected the liquid from the contaminated udders and infected a boy, who developed a bit of fever and small lesions, but recovered. Weeks later, Jenner inoculated the boy with the smallpox virus but the youth proved to be immune to it.

Brazilians Macedo and Norberto were well aware of this story. The first was a physician and a writer, considered one of the forefathers of the Brazilian novel, having written A Moreninha, among other books. Norberto was an historian and man of letters. Both read the letters submitted, consulted official documents and concluded that the Marquis of Barbacena was the real precursor of vaccination here. According to them, Francisco Mendes practiced inoculation. In other words, he introduced into the skin material contaminated with the virus, a highly dangerous method. The Marquis of Barbacena, on the other hand, imported the vaccination technique from Portugal and put it into practice in Bahia. Vaccination only became mandatory with Oswaldo Cruz’s early 20th century campaigns. As for smallpox, it was only considered to have been eradicated worldwide in 1980.

“Macedo and Norberto produced for the emperor a foundation document recording the start of the introduction of Jennerian vaccination in Brazil”, comments Myriam Bahia Lopes. She published the full 19-page document in the magazine História, Ciências, Saúde: Manguinhos (April-June 2007).