Adventures in the Archives
The Heifer and Its Lymph: The Animal Vaccine Establishment’s Register Book

The Heifer and Its Lymph: The Animal Vaccine Establishment’s Register Book

Few people I know like working at the UK National Archives. They find it too impersonal, too frigid, too strict. But since I first worked there in July 2014, it has become my archival home. The place is dependable — you can always find silence in the reading rooms, good espresso in the ground-floor café, and swan poop on the pavement outside. The greatest barrier to most people, though, isn’t the crap: it’s the administrative records. If you can get past the dull jargon, you will find some fascinating material, like the register book I found on my recent visit in July 2018.

A two-story building with a glass facade.
The National Archives sits in glassy glory in London’s Kew Gardens neighborhood. (Kristin Brig/Nursing Clio)

My current project examines the late nineteenth-century British Empire’s obsession with finding a source of satisfactory vaccine lymph, the bacteriological material made from cowpox vesicles used to vaccinate human bodies against smallpox. That morning, as I ordered some archival boxes, I stumbled across a curious document. It had a limited description in the record search: “Glycerinated calf lymph; distribution of vaccine for testing with returns of results.” It lists the dates as 1898-1900 and labels the book a “Register” without further description. After picking up the box in the oversized manuscripts room later that afternoon, I gingerly pried the book from its box to find a plain blue cover with no title.

Inside, I found a register filled with cows: heifers, steers, and bulls, all under a year old. The book starts with a series of charts without introduction or context, the same way it ends. Each section consists of a thirty-six-column chart spanning two pages, narrating the cow’s movement through the Animal Vaccine Establishment’s (AVE) vaccine farm, the London stables and laboratory where British bacteriologists produced vaccine lymph.

A page of a large open book with handwritten tabular data.
Page two of section 28 of the “Register” book features the bacteriological and testing components of the Animal Vaccine Establishment (AVE). (MH 70/12, UK National Archives)

As I examined the book’s 602 pages, beginning with five-month-old cow no. 4436 of series 23 in 1898 and ending with five-month-old cow no. 856 of series 649 in 1900, I felt flabbergasted. Where did this book fit into the story of late nineteenth-century vaccine lymph beyond its obvious attention to lymph production? And how, if at all, did this British-centric information affect how colonial doctors approached lymph?

In 1881, the Local Government Board — the centralized public health administration established in 1871 to conduct public health activities like smallpox vaccination across England and Wales — invested in a new vaccine farm at the AVE to satisfy its needs for pure vaccine lymph for compulsory vaccination. This register book is probably one of several books that the AVE maintained, showing which cows produced the most satisfactory lymph and keeping track of where this lymph went after production.

Although fuller descriptions of British vaccine farms exist in public health reports, like this one from Dublin, this register book depicts how intimately the cow’s importance was tied to the quality of the lymph it produced. The book’s secretary detailed each cow’s physical aspects before and after lymph production, recording its sex, age, coat color, condition, weight, and temperature. From these descriptions, the AVE preferred to use calves younger than a year old, primarily females, who were in “good” condition.

The AVE refused to use cows with defects before or during the vaccination process, presumably to ensure the most satisfactory lymph possible. Historians Nadja Durbach and Pierrick Malissard have shown how British anti-vaccination movements claimed that human vaccine lymph could spread infectious diseases like syphilis and scrofula.1 To defeat these claims, pro-vaccinationists had to provide not only non-human lymph, but clean non-human lymph.

A calf is strapped on its side to a large wooden table in a bare room. Its side is shaved and marked.
Although this image comes from a vaccine farm in Cologne, Germany, it resonates with British descriptions of the vesicle-collecting process. (Richard Thorne and Sydney Copeman, Report to the Local Government Board on the Preparations and Storage of Glycerinated Calf Vaccine Lymph, 1897: 17)

The AVE’s bacteriologists carefully monitored each cow’s progress. As the register shows, they could discard cows that were deemed unhealthy at any point in the process. Usually, inspectors rented a cow from a contractor and returned it to the contractor once lymph had been collected. Not all cows returned to their owners, though. At first, the bacteriologists slaughtered unsuitable subjects, as happened in 1898 to cow no. 22, series 43: “On removal from table after vaccination this calf, it was found, had dislocated its hip, & was accordingly slaughtered as soon as possible.”2

Beginning in February 1900, the AVE notes that it returned “unfit” cows to their contractors instead of slaughtering them.3 Perhaps the contractors were upset that the establishment had chosen to slaughter their property instead of returning it, even in a broken state. The fate of unfit register book cows thus reveals the tension between the AVE and its contributors, a vaccination issue that went beyond anti-vaccinationists.

As my eye moved across the columns, cow and lymph became increasingly entwined. The register notes the source of each lymph supply for vaccinating the cows, how many times the bacteriologist vaccinated the cow, the cow’s condition during/following vaccination, and when/how much lymph was collected from the cow. Although no cow was used more than once, it remained part of the AVE through its lymph: if the lymph proved good, the AVE both bottled it for public vaccination and recycled it for future calf vaccination. Otherwise, lymph and cow were discarded together.

If the collected lymph proved viable, it moved into the laboratory. Here, bacteriologists more closely examined its quality with three, sometimes four, tests using glycerin, a preservative used to keep lymph fresh for extended periods of time, and distilled water. If the lymph passed these tests, they bottled it in glass tubes for testing on live subjects, specifically calves and, yes, children. After all, what would vaccination be without some young test subjects?4

An old illustration showing a portion of a cow udder covered in open sores. Below the udder illustration is one of several human arms affected with similar sores.
An 1811 drawing showing a cowpox infection on a heifer’s udder (top) and an illustration depicting pox on a human arm (bottom). (J. Pass/Wellcome Library | CC BY)

The register continues to scrutinize cows and their lymph even after they left the establishment. For lymph, the register records where the AVE sent its tubes and how effective the lymph was on the general public. Here was my imperial link, the importance of analyzing this otherwise inscrutable text for understanding vaccination in the British Empire. The “remarks” column, the last of the thirty-six in each section, sometimes explained that these tubes made their way to the Cape Colony and New Zealand. The lymph came from a British cow and ended up in a colonist’s skin, figuratively sending cattle to the ends of the Empire.

But the cows, you ask. What happened to the cows? The register offers only hints. A column toward the front of each section records the date of each calf’s return to its contractor, if it did return. Yet at the end of the vaccination process, two columns provide information regarding “Autopsy of Calf.” The autopsy date always took place a day or two after the calf’s return to its dealer. Unlike lymph, the calves no longer had a purpose; they were killed and their bodies examined, discarded whether or not they produced good vaccine lymph. So, why did the AVE return the calf to its contractor if the establishment autopsied the calf to determine its post-vaccinal health? How did the autopsy help if some cows were discovered with internal diseases after death but produced good lymph when alive? And what happened to the cow’s body after the autopsy?

I have no answers to these questions yet. Like any good archival source, it asks more questions than it answers.

Nonetheless, the book has given me a new outlook — I now see cows and think pox.


  1. Nadja Durbach, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Pierrick Malissard, “‘Pharming’ a l’ancienne: les fermes vaccinales canadiennes,” The Canadian Historical Review 85, no. 1 (March 2004): 35-62. Return to text.
  2. MH 70/12, UK National Archives, 17. Return to text.
  3. The first was no. 554, “nil series,” on page 390. Return to text.
  4. Lydia Murdoch, “Carrying the Pox: The Use of Children and Ideals of Childhood in Early British and Imperial Campaigns against Smallpox,” Journal of Social History 48, 3 (Spring 2015): 511-535. William Woodville and George Pearson, two early nineteenth-century followers of Edward Jenner, frequently used children in their vaccination experiments. For more information, see their work: Woodville, Reports of a Series of Inoculations for the Variolae Vaccinae, or Cow Pox (London: William Philips, 1800); Vaccine-Pock Institute Physicians, Report on the Cow-Pock Inoculation (London: Henry Reynell, 1803). Return to text.

Kristin is a PhD candidate in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation examines the intersection of water management and public health in nineteenth-century colonial South Africa, focusing on the ways port city administrators and residents collaborated and conflicted over how best to deal with their hydrological environments.