Lessons from Rinderpest

Hugh Pennington

‘The details of that Bill may be good or bad, and its policy wise or foolish,’ Walter Bagehot wrote of the 1866 Cattle Plague Act. ‘But the manner in which it was hurried through the House of Commons savoured of despotism.’ Jonathan Sumption describes the 2020 Coronavirus Act in a similar way in his new book Law in a Time of Crisis:

This hefty document of 348 pages with 102 sections and 29 schedules was pushed through all its stages in a single day in each House as the lockdown was announced. In the time available no serious scrutiny of its terms can have been possible.

Cattle plague was a lethal disease of bovines cause by the rinderpest virus, an agent closely related to measles. It came to Britain from Europe in the mid 1860s and killed at least 420,000 cows. Rinderpest is not a coronavirus. Its R number is probably three times greater than that of Covid-19, and its mortality rate is much higher. But as a model it still has relevance to contemporary events.

It is only the third virus disease to have been eradicated by control measures, following smallpox and SARS, and it is the only one to have fallen to a herd immunity strategy, which led to its extinction in 2011. Success came by inoculating animals with the tissue culture rinderpest vaccine. It protected against all variants, gave life-long immunity after a single dose, didn’t induce adverse reactions, and had a shelf life of more than a month at room temperature. Only time will tell whether we will be as fortunate with Covid-19.

A Public Inquiry into Covid-19 in the UK has been promised. There has been no suggestion that its form will be other than that laid down by the 2005 Inquiries Act. It is reasonably certain that such an inquiry will take years. Maxwellisation (a.k.a. the sending of warning letters re criticism) will probably be done on an industrial scale. Whenever an inquiry is set up, I recommend that a copy of the seven-hundred-page report of the Royal Commission on the Origin and Nature &c., of the Cattle Plague be provided.

Established less than four months after the first case was diagnosed, the commission’s first report with recommendations was published within a month, and its final report, describing detailed and comprehensive research into the disease and its cause, illustrated with many colour plates, came out after seven months. Even though the germ theory of disease was new, controversial and contested by such influential individuals as Florence Nightingale, the pioneering conclusions of the scientists working at speed for the commission (almost the first in the UK to be funded by the government to conduct research) about the nature of the virus, its incubation period, its transmission, the effectiveness of disinfectants, vaccination and inoculation, and the pathology of the disease, have stood the test of time.


  • 20 May 2021 at 11:59am
    Hugh Small says:
    Florence Nightingale was NOTamong those who contested the germ theory. The principal opponents were medical professionals who had been in the habit of neglecting hygiene. Nightingale drafted an article for Quain's Medical Dictionary in the 1870s which advised nurses how to kill germs. The Dictionary was not published until 1882 which was when London medical schools first began teaching germ theory.
    Nightingale's views were similar to those of medical historian Christopher Hamlin: that the qualifications required to diagnose a disease are not the same as those required to prevent it. Therapeutics should not be discussed in the same breath as etiology. At the time the government's prevention strategy was focused on microbiological research to find a 'cure'. The political opposition to an alternative 'sanitarian' approach was stubborn. Nightingale through her writings overcame this opposition and contributed to the 1875 Public Health Act.
    Hugh Small
    Author, "Florence Nightingale and her Real Legacy - a Revolution in Public Health"