Epidemics, Family History and 19th Century Anti-Vaxxers

At a time when, across the world, we are anxious about the spread of the COVID-19 virus, many of us who are family historians will probably have at the back of our minds, the Spanish Flu epidemic which occurred at the end of WW1. Estimates of the number of deaths vary between 24.7 million to 100 million, although more recent research argues that these figures are exaggerated and the true number was 17.4 million.[i]  This website contains some interesting scientific data about the epidemic and makes comparisons with the current outbreak of COVID-19. https://ourworldindata.org/spanish-flu-largest-influenza-pandemic-in-history.

Whatever the actual number of deaths, many family historians are aware of at least one death if not more happening within their own families. Whilst the epidemic is considered to have ended in 1920, my own mother in law lost her father from pneumonia in 1921, and always attributed his death to Spanish Flu. She was the eldest of 4 children and aged 11 at the time. She became the carer of her younger siblings as her mother went out cleaning to keep a roof over the heads of her children and no doubt to avoid the horrors of the workhouse.

As part of my PhD research, I traced the family tree of one of the major figures who campaigned against compulsory smallpox vaccination in both Scotland and England, Dr. Walter R. Hadwen, a Gloucester doctor. At the time his children, Una, Harral, John and Grace were born, he was a pharmacist with a business in Highbridge in Somerset. He refused to have his children vaccinated against smallpox and was prosecuted several times. In January 1882, he appeared at Axbridge Petty Sessions charged with failing to have his child Una vaccinated. When the Chairman ordered that Una should be vaccinated and Hadwen fined, an angry Hadwen responded “You can’t go by the opinion of medical men only in this matter” much to the amusement of the court.[ii] He appeared in court again on 11 August 1884 for refusing to allow his son John to be vaccinated.[iii]

Of his children, Harrel died shortly after his birth, and John, died in 1918, a victim of influenza. John qualified as a doctor at the University of London and according to the Medical Register became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians the same year.[iv] Hadwen joined the Royal Navy in 1909, and was appointed to the Royal Hospital Haslar as a surgeon on 12 August 1912.[v] His grandfather William R. Hadwen (1819 – 1903) had served in the marines, so perhaps the call of the sea was in young Hadwen’s blood. In 1911 John was serving onboard HMS Cornwallis.[vi] He arrived in New York in April, having left Liverpool on April 12th 1918.[vii] New York has been suggested as the source of the Spanish Flu epidemic as there is evidence of a pre pandemic wave of the virus in the city.[viii]

Hadwen was serving on HMS Lancaster a the time of his death. A newspaper account appeared in the Gloucester Journal dated 23 November 1918 reproduced two letters sent to his parents by Rear Admiral P.H Colomb and B Clive Deman. Rear Admiral Colomb includes the comment: Your son gave his life for others. Laying down at the moment when he had brought all the great number of influenza patients on board some 200 to 300 – back to health and safety.[ix]

He is commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves as J Hadwen, Lieut – Commander Surgeon. He was laid to rest in the Greenwood Memorial Park in San Diego, but does not have a CWG headstone.[x] His grave, and his photograph can be seen on FindAGrave https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/13527233/john-hadwen and includes the comment from Colomb’s letter.

H.M.S Lancaster

Perusing the ship’s log for October 1918 it is possible to see the numbers of officers and men on the sick list each day. It is a tribute to Hadwen’s skill that only three names appear on the Casualty list for HMS Lancaster in October 1918.[xi] Herbert Weston on October 3rd 1918 and Alfred Caleb Hallett, possibly the hospital case landed on October 5th who died on October 13th. Both men were buried in the Bellavista Old British Cemetery in Peru . The third death listed was for Hadwen himself on October 23rd.  There are 6 WW1 servicemen buried in the Bellavista Cemetery.[xii]

The ship’s logs notes that Hadwen had joined the ship in May 1918, was discharged to hospital on October 22nd and passed away the following day. A funeral party was landed at 8.30 a.m. returning to the ship at 11.15 on October 24th.[xiii]

In 1921 Dr. Walter R. Hadwen and his wife visited San Diego and were able to visit their son’s grave. Hadwen delivered lectures during his trip and was quoted in a paper that: Dr. Walter R. Hadwen, famous physician of Gloucester, England, states that before a decade has passed the whole germ theory of disease will go by the board. “Inoculation for the prevention of disease is the most ridiculous assumption ever introduced into a sane world. – ‘ he says.[xiv]

There are no living descendants of Dr. Walter R Hadwen, the Hadwens lost both of their sons, but both daughters married. Una died in 1940 and her only daughter Eulalie, died unmarried in 1995. Grace died in 1974, childless. Being an opponent to vaccination and having lost his son to Spanish Flu, I do wonder what Hadwen would think of today’s efforts in the research laboratories across the world work flat out to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.


[i] P. Spreeuwenberg; et al. (1 December 2018). “Reassessing the Global Mortality Burden of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic”. American Journal of Epidemiology. 187 (12): 2561–2567. doi:10.1093/aje/kwy191. PMID 30202996

[ii] Source: Weston Mercury and Somerset Herald, 14 January 1882, British Newspaper Archive.

[iii] Source: Western Gazette 15 August 1884.

[iv] Source: Medical Register 1913  FindMyPast.

[v] Source: The Navy List, Medical Establishments, p. 554,  FindMyPast

[vi] Source: 1911 Census for England and Wales, RG14PN34973 RD640 SD4 ED21 SN9999 FindMyPast.

[vii] Source:Passenger List Leaving the UK, FindMyPast.

[viii] Source: https://ourworldindata.org/spanish-flu-largest-influenza-pandemic-in-history; Olson D. R., Simonsen L., Edelson P. J., Morse S. S. (2005). Epidemiological evidence of an early wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic in New York City. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 102 11059–11063. 10.1073/pnas.0408290102

[ix] Source: Gloucester Journal, 23 November 1918, British Newspaper Archive.

[x] https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/4010217/hadwen,-/

[xi] http://www.naval-history.net/xDKCas1918-10Oct.htm

[xii] https://www.cwgc.org/find/find-war-dead/results/?cemetery=BELLAVISTA%20OLD%20BRITISH%20CEMETERY

[xiii] http://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-05-HMS_Lancaster.htm

[xiv] Source: Lompoc Review Volume III, Number 21, 8 July 1921, California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, <http://cdnc.ucr.edu&gt;.

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