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Luigi Sacco, ceroplastic and early smallpox vaccination in Italy

December 12, 2011

Feature: The use of media in early vaccination campaigns – by Fabio Zampieri, Alberto Zanatta and Maurizio Rippa Bonati

“Tables should be prepared with well coloured drawings or, even better, two arms made by wax, one with pustules of real vaccine, another with spurious and anomalous pustules. Those representations should be multiplied and sent to every chief town.”
Luigi Sacco (1803)

Luigi Sacco (1769–1863), who has been referred to as the ‘Italian Jenner’ and the ‘apostle of vaccination’, was the protagonist of the first vaccination campaign in Northern Italy. In September 1800, two years after the discovery of Jenner’s vaccination, Sacco identified the pus vaccine in a group of cows near Varese; as a result, the government of the Cisalpine Republic appointed Sacco executive chief of vaccination in 1801. Sacco’s vaccine was used all over Italy – and in Eastern Europe and Asia – after this date. Sacco was active until the 1820s, and he headed the vaccination campaign through three different Northern Italian governments between 1801 and 1809: the Cisalpine Republic, the Italian Republic and the Kingdom of Italy.

In 1803 Sacco published a monograph about vaccination. This explained the creation and use of iconographical and wax models in Italian smallpox control efforts “to fix the attention of the population, and, particularly, of physicians, surgeons and midwifes, and to avoid the danger of reaching doubtful or misleading results.”

A plate published by Sacco on spurious and real vaccine.

A plate published by Sacco on spurious and real vaccine.

In 1809 Sacco published his major work, The Treatise of Vaccination with Observations on Grease and Sheep-pox. He published those “well coloured drawings” in this book with the goal of “speaking better to the eyes of…readers” – these included four wonderful coloured plates about pustules in cow, horse, sheep and human vaccine (real and spurious). The plate about the pustules in the nipples of the cow represented the spontaneous and the pustules induced by inoculation. The plate about horse ‘grease’ aimed to help readers to distinguish this disease from other similar eruptions in horses’ hooves. The plate dedicated to sheep-pox, a disease in sheep similar to ‘rogna’ (scabies) or ‘stizza’, highlighted the peculiar fact that it particularly affected the snout. Finally, the plate about humans (left) was probably the most detailed picture of the time of real and spurious pustules. It depicted two arms. The first, on the top, showed the evolution of real vaccine from the beginning until the cicatrisation of the pustule; the second, at the bottom, represented two different series of pustules. The series above showed the evolution of ‘spurious malignant vaccine’, whereas the other represented the evolution of the ‘spurious benignant vaccine’.

We have found a series of anatomical waxes that correspond exactly to the images available in Sacco’s treatise in some north Italian hospitals and medical museums. We have discovered models in the archive of the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan (where Sacco started his medical carrier), in Bologna’s ‘Cattaneo’s Museum of Anatomical Waxes’, in Pavia’s ‘Museum for the History of the University’ and ‘Museum of Pathological Anatomy’, and in Padua’s ‘Museum of Pathological Anatomy’. In the Museum of Pathological Anatomy of Padua, we found the complete series of four models. Each contains the following legend: “Explanation of the vaccinal preparation contained in the three tables executed under the direction of Mr. Pietro Moscati, State Counsellor Consultant, Dignitary of the Order of Iron Crown, General Director of the Public Education”.

Pietro Moscati was one of the major figures of political life during the second Cisalpine Republic (1800–1802), the Italian Republic (1802–1805) and the Kingdom of Italy (1805–1814). Named State Counsellor, Senator of the Kingdom, General Director of Public Education and President of the Magistrate of Health (from 1805 to 1810), it is easy to understand why Moscati created the vaccination wax models based on Sacco’s plates. Moscati was General Director of Public Education and President of the Magistrate of Health from 1805 to 1810, the period in which Sacco was active and published his books. Moscati had an undoubted interest in vaccination because he was the first practitioner of the older method of variolation in Milan; in addition, he probably wrote an anonymous review of the Latin translation of Jenner’s Inquiry published in Vienna in 1799.

But what about the relationship between Moscati and Sacco? Can we regard Sacco as a direct inspiration for this project? After all, Sacco started his medical career at the Maggiore Hospital of Milan, where he became Moscati’s “friend” and “scholar”. Moscati carried out the first official variolation in the Milan charitable institution (‘Ospizio’) of Santa Caterina della Ruota in 1761, and Sacco practised the first official act of vaccination in 1801. Moreover, when Sacco was named General Director of Vaccination in 1801 by the Cisalpine Republic, Moscati was Executive Director of the government, so we can say that the presence of Moscati was essential to Sacco’s nomination. We can, therefore, safely infer that Sacco inspired the creation of wax models.

In the Old Archive of the University of Padua, we have found a document that attests the precise date on which the wax models arrived in Padua from Milan. The document consists of two letters sent by the Prefect of the Department of ‘Brenta’ (general administration) of the Region of Padua to the Regent of Padua University. One of the letters notes that the Prefect received a case on 28 October 1807 from the General Director of Public Education in Milan, and the descriptions provided in the letters clearly correspond to the models still conserved in the Padua Museum of Pathological Anatomy. The date of receipt mentioned in this correspondence, 28 October 1807, is very interesting – it is a period when Sacco was active, but it is before the publication of the Treatise on Vaccine (1809), where Sacco published the “well coloured” plates, and after the publication of the Memory of Vaccine (1803), in which Sacco highlighted the importance of creating plates and wax models. This means that the creation and dissemination of the vaccination wax models were an important part of advertising the release of Sacco’s treatise.

Sacco’s intention was not just to communicate with thinkers – he was also particularly interested in interacting with observers. His purpose was to show the specificity of pox pustules in cows, horses, sheep and humans in order to permit everybody to recognise them. This specificity was highlighted through the representation of the structure and colour of pustules as they evolved over time. At a time without photography and television, there was no better means of representation and public health education than the use of ceroplastics to create models, a technique already widely used for teaching anatomy and pathological anatomy.

Fabio Zampieri and Alberto Zanatta are Researchers and Maurizio Rippa Bonati is a Professor in the Section of Medical Humanities, part of the Department of Medico-Diagnostic Sciences and Special Therapies, at the University of Padua Medical School.

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