Louis-Léopold Boilly, The Vaccination

Posted by on Feb 1, 2014

Oil on canvas, 1807 (Paris)
CC BY 4.0, The Wellcome Library, London

Both the hardcover jacket and the paperback cover of The Speckled Monster show details from Boilly’s 1807 painting of a man vaccinating a young child held by its mother, while other members of the household look on.

It’s a bit anachronistic in clothing styles and — more importantly — in showing a vaccination rather than an inoculation (or variolation). On the other hand,the procedure was pretty much the same, save that the “matter” the physician in the painting would have used was, after Jenner, the cowpox virus (vaccinia) rather than the smallpox virus (variola major). But the scene of an entire household gathering around a child as a physician performed the operation played out countless times from 1721 well into the twentieth century, when vaccinations moved to more clinical settings.

When the book came out, one of my friends, Claude Bailey — a fine artist — made a version of this painting with my face substituted for that of the young dark-haired woman in the gray dress, second from the left. It hangs over my desk.

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