When preparing to move to a new country, immigrants carefully packed all they would need: clothes were necessary, tools and books were useful, and recipes helped to provide the comforts of home.

As well as favourite dishes and treats, recipes for medicines were packed to help combat ailments in the new lands.

A recipe for the Cure and Prevention of Smallpox has recently been uncovered in the archives.

Aware of the effects of this ravaging disease, the receipt, as it was called, was brought from England to Whanganui by William John Holder when he migrated in 1842.

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Smallpox was a devastating disease. It was highly contagious and easily caught by close contact with an infected person.

An infected droplet could be inhaled from 2m away. It could also be spread by contact with infected body fluids on sheets, clothing or utensils.

Extract from a letter written to William Watt by Alex Pirie on February 9, 1837, five years before William Holder immigrated to New Zealand. The letter states the town of Dundee in Scotland was losing 130 people a week to smallpox, measles and influenza. Photo / Supplied
Extract from a letter written to William Watt by Alex Pirie on February 9, 1837, five years before William Holder immigrated to New Zealand. The letter states the town of Dundee in Scotland was losing 130 people a week to smallpox, measles and influenza. Photo / Supplied

After 10-14 days of incubation, the disease began with a sudden onset of fever, malaise, muscle aches and headache, and was followed by mouth sores and a rash, vomiting and diarrhoea. The distinctive rash of fluid-filled bumps with a central dent could cover the body.

Nearly one third of those who caught the disease died. Fatalities were much higher among the young.

One third of those who survived were rendered blind, and nearly everyone was left with scars from the scabbed pustules. In the 18th century alone, it is estimated that about 400,000 deaths per year occurred from smallpox.

William Holder's handwritten recipe gives the instructions to mix thoroughly one grain of sulphate of zinc, one grain of foxglove and half a teaspoon of sugar with two tablespoons of water.

This solution was then further diluted. Adults were instructed to take one teaspoon of the tincture every hour, and children were to take less according to their age.

But would it have helped to fight such a virulent disease?

The measurements are small. A one-grain measurement as directed is equivalent to 65mg.

Sulphate of zinc works to reduce the number of bowel motions particularly while suffering diarrhoea.

A dose of 20mg per day is sufficient to help a child recover, and adults are not recommended to take more than 40mg per day. Too much zinc can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, and increase the heart rate.

Digitalis, the medical extraction of foxglove, increases the amount of calcium in the heart's cells which strengthens the force of the heartbeat.

Smallpox quarantine notice published in the Wanganui Herald on February 9, 1869, after one man arrived in Whanganui with the disease. Photo / Supplied
Smallpox quarantine notice published in the Wanganui Herald on February 9, 1869, after one man arrived in Whanganui with the disease. Photo / Supplied

It helps a weakened heart to pump harder and combats abnormal heart rhythms. Too much, however, can cause heart beat irregularities and even be fatal.

Sugar is essential in rehydration, particularly during and after diarrhoea. It can also act as an antioxidant and would have helped with the flavour.

The water acted as the carrier and would certainly have helped with hydration during such an illness.

This medicine would not have helped Holder's immune system to fight off the smallpox. It would have helped reduce his diarrhoea and kept him hydrated and his heart pumping while the disease ran its course, assuming he made it correctly and did not take too much.

We do not know if Holder actually needed to make this recipe himself, but nearly two centuries later we have no need of it any longer.

A very successful global vaccination programme saw the last naturally occurring case of smallpox diagnosed in October 1977, and the World Health Organisation declared the disease globally eradicated in 1980.


Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.