Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The First War with Mass Vaccinations of the Troops

In this photograph, soldiers of the Liverpool Scottish show off their arms
after being vaccinated, c.1914.

Many of the most important medical developments and practices of the last century have their origins in the First World War. Vaccines were first used on a major scale during the war and most British servicemen sent abroad were vaccinated against typhoid. As a result, deaths from the disease were significantly reduced. 

For the British Army this was due to one not well known event, when Sir William Osler, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, persuaded senior army officers about the necessity of vaccinating troops against typhoid, despite a conscientious objector law preventing compulsory vaccination backed by the powerful Anti-Vaccination League. Osler argued that the "army marched on its brain" and that vaccination against typhoid would reduce mortality by half. In the event, Osler’s arguments won the day and soon 97 percent of the troops were being vaccinated. It is worth pointing out that by 1911, vaccination against typhoid was mandatory for American troops, and one of the reasons for the low mortality from disease in the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War was that the Japanese vaccinated all their troops against typhoid. By 1914 there were also vaccines against cholera, anthrax, rabies, typhoid, and plague, but they appear to have been used randomly without any obvious strategic plan.

Sources:  Imperial War Museum; "The First World War Disease the Only Victor," Lecture by Professor Francis Cox, Gresham College


  1. Apparently George Washington insisted his troops be vaccinated against smallpox. At that time, such vaccination was not widely accepted. Many troops feared the procedure, and some even deserted rather than be vaccinated, but the smallpox vaccinations were generally effective.

  2. Hi there! Your picture reminds my me when I got my first shot in the chandler primary care I'm scared to any injections, I'm thankful that the staff and the nurse are all nice and very approachable.