Sir Almroth Wright (1861-1947), aged about forty-five.
In the 19th century, typhoid fever was a feared disease with a death rate of 10-30%. By 1897, Wright had developed a vaccine at the Army Medical School, near Southampton. Based on some promising trials, he recommended the vaccination of soldiers serving in South Africa (Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902). This only happened on a voluntary basis – a policy resulting in a mere 4% take-up. The reluctance was in large part due to the side effects of fever which could last up to a week. In some instances the opposition was more overt: crates of the vaccine were dumped into Southampton water from troop ships sailing south.
In South Africa, 9,022 British soldiers died from typhoid fever, more than those killed in enemy action.
Wright continued to champion his vaccine, clashing with the renowned statistician Karl Pearson, who was not convinced by the data. When asked by the War Office if he had anything further to tell them, Wright is said to have replied: “No, Sir, I have given you the facts – I can’t give you the brains.”
Resigning from his Army post, Wright took up a new position at St Mary’s Hospital, London. In 1914, his redemption came in the form of another war. Again, vaccination was voluntary at first, but Lord Kitchener heeded Wright’s advice and made it compulsory. By 1915, 94% of the British Expeditionary Force had been vaccinated. Comparisons later showed that an unvaccinated soldier was 41.1 times more likely to die than one who had been vaccinated. In WW1, 1,191 British soldiers died from typhoid fever. Bearing in mind that trench warfare conditions on the Western Front were far more conducive to typhoid fever than the arid South African Veldt, it has been estimated that there would have been up to 125,000 deaths had the anti-typhoid vaccination program not been adopted.