When young Gideon would have been three years old (he was born in 1790) an outbreak of the dreaded smallpox occurred in Lewes on 4 January 1794. The following report was recorded in the Town Book of 1794 describing how the town and its people requested affected people to remain in their homes and not to spread the illness. The people identified in the account lived two doors from the Mantell family house on St Mary’s Lane.
Gideon’s father Thomas Mantell was a local tradesman a cordwainer, and a well known Dissenter. He was elected one of the two Headboroughs in 1792 and served on the council known as The Twelve who, elected annually, managed the town’s finances and oversaw law and order and general town improvements. He would have been involved in the town meetings called to discuss the outbreak and what to do about it.
The town eventually decided upon the use of inoculation, a new development available in the town from its local doctor Dr Frewin who had premises on School Hill. It was agreed by the town that “general inoculation being an evil much less to be dreaded than infection in the natural way”.
After being injected with some “infected matter” taken from cow pox pustules they were required to rest indoors for two weeks. Nevertheless it was not without its dangers and out of 2,290 town inhabitants and 600 strangers inoculated forty six died. Those who died were of all ages from eight hours to eighty years and there many ulcerated arms experienced and 25 women miscarried.
Dr Thomas Frewin (1704-91) from Northiam was a pioneer and advocate of inoculating, having written it up for his Master’s. He was however cited as a “common Nuisance” in the Lewes Quarter sessions of 1750 for injecting patients near a busy highway in Northiam, by 1772 it was becoming more accepted a practice. However in 1794 it was still a novel approach with many people fearful.
From the Town Book of Lewes 1702 – 1837 ed by Verena Smith. Sussex Records Society; Lewes Vol 69 pages 94-96
Smallpox was declared as “eradicated” by World Health Organisation in 1967 through programmes of vaccination carried out across the world.