Sandymount’s Smallpox Secret


Sandymount village has a well-known history of being both a bustling marketplace and a tourist destination for beach-goers. However, even the most knowledgeable local historian may not know about Sandymount’s role in the nascent Irish pharmaceutical industry. Many people may never have heard that Sandymount was at one time the sole Irish manufacturer of the smallpox vaccine.

Michael McAuliffe, who ran the local McAuliffe’s Pharmacy and is also a lifelong resident of Sandymount, is one of the people who knows about this niche part of the village’s history. He remembers a time when the village looked very different.

While today a cow in the centre of the village would be a sight to see, 60 years ago it would not have been so strange. Like many villages at that time in Dublin, livestock were commonly seen and kept, from the horses and carriages that delivered groceries, to the pigs located behind the butchers (where they were ready to become the freshest of local produce). However, there were some cows being kept in the village for unconventional reasons.

McAuliffe remembers calves being kept behind a large concrete wall, in a field on Marine Drive where Tesco’s Supermarket is now located. These were cows belonging to a local physician, Dr. Denham, and they were being used to manufacture a vaccine against smallpox.

Smallpox was a contagious disease which caused severe rashes and blisters on the skin. It could often leave a patient severely scarred and was frequently deadly.

“The calf’s tummy was shaved and scarified and inoculated with the virus,” remembers McAuliffe.

This virus was cowpox, a virus that solely affected cows and was not infectious to humans but could prime their immune system against the smallpox virus and so prevent the disease. When the cowpox was suitably developed, the calf was slaughtered and the virus was harvested in Dr Denham’s laboratory on the property.

The vaccine was packaged and distributed through wholesale pharmacies. From there it would be delivered to hospitals all around the country. People would receive this vaccine before traveling abroad to countries where there was a risk of catching the virus.

Smallpox led to the death of hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century. However, the disease was eradicated towards the end of the 1970s, due largely to the introduction of effective vaccines such as the ones developed by Dr. Denham in Sandymount.

Next time you do your weekly shop in Tesco’s in Sandymount, you might remember that you are standing in the location where Dr. Denham’s laboratory once stood and the contribution a few cows made to the history of the vaccine in Ireland.

By Alanna O’Shea