The 1962 Smallpox outbreaks in England & Wales

Photo: ITV Wales

THIS WEBSITE tells the story of the outbreaks of Smallpox in Britain in 1962, with particular emphasis on the impact of the disease in Wales, where 19 people died and 900,000 were vaccinated.

The outbreak began in January 1962. To mark the 50th anniversary content was added from January to May 2012.

The site is the work of James Stewart, who made a documentary about the outbreak for ITV in 2002.  While he was teaching at the University of Glamorgan, a small group of students joined the project to record the memories of people affected by the outbreak in 1962.

CLICK on the tabs in the menu to follow the story in different locations.

If you have memories (or pictures) from the 1962 outbreaks, please get in touch by adding a comment. Your contributions will be added to the site (see below –

See people’s comments and add your own below (or on other pages).  See also ‘What do you remember?’

Contact the project by e-mail:


21 thoughts on “The 1962 Smallpox outbreaks in England & Wales

  1. I was 16 and attending Ferndale Grammar School when the outbreak happened. We were shepherded down to the doctors’ surgery and given smallpox vaccinations. It was quite scary. We were told we shouldn’t go anywhere near Penrhys (even though the hospital itself was well away from the main road linking the Rhondda Fach with the Rhondda Fawr valley).

  2. I was a 10 year old at home in Cardiff from boarding school when the outbreak occurred. As we didn’t have a phone at the time a policemen arrived with a message from the school to say I couldn’t return until I was vaccinated. i thought this would mean a few extra days holiday but first thing in the morning we joined the queues outside the clinic in Richmond Road and were vaccinated. I returned to school next day and a short while later the school decided as a precaution to vaccinate everyone. I tried to protest that I had already been vaccinated but no one listened to 10 year olds in those days. Unsurprisingly I became seriously ill. Imagine the litigation today!!

  3. My father may also have been a possible link/source of transmission between the initial person ill and the later outbreak in Glanrhyd hospital. He was a doctor in public health and made some of the initial investigations as to the source of the outbreak in Cardiff and had contact with infected people.
    He also regularly visited Glanrhyd hospital in the course of other aspects of his work. I remember him coming home and vaccinateding us all in the kitchen at the earliest opportunity, as soon as he became involved in the initial investigations. It scares me to think he could possibly have inadvertently transmitted the disease but … I don’t know. I just know he definitely had been in both places.

  4. In 1962, as assistant secretary of the Welsh Indoor Bowls Association, one of my tasks was to assist in the staging of the Home International Matches between Wales, England and Scotland. This event took place in March at the old Llanishen Indoor Bowls Stadium (destroyed by heavy snowfrall in 1983). Because of the large attendance a mobile medical centre was set up offering inocculation and many people took advantage of this, including me. For my pains I suffered a severely inflamed arm and a three day fever – a common side effect apparently! However no one caught smallpox. At that time I was responsible for organising the Short Greens league which included several valley clubs. Widespread cancellations occurred but happily we were able to catch up with the prograamme before the end of the season. All in all a memorable period in my life.

  5. In Jan.1962 I joined the Q.A.R.A.N.C [Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps], previously working at the cottage hospital in Pontypridd. I remember the news on the T.V. reporting the outbreak in S.Wales and people asking me where I was from. Straight to the medical center for vaccinations!! I knew the doctor who had died of the disease.

  6. I was 17, my sister almost 10 and my brother had just been born in the January. Our father, a healthy 53 year old, was the headmaster of Ferndale Secondary Modern School for boys. Having just heard of the SP outbreak, my father announced, in assembly, that he was going to have his vaccine that evening and encouraged all to follow suit. Later on in the year, my father began to suffer with a tightening of his chest, which was eventually diagnosed as emphysema. His physical condition worsened and he ended up in Llwynypia Hospital, on more than one occasion, for tests. My mother became increasingly dissatisfied, feeling that they were not getting to the root of his problem. She then got in touch with a Harley Street Specialist and my father was taken to the London Hospital in Whitechapel for further testing, where he spent several weeks, including Christmas 1963. Eventually, his condition was diagnosed as myocarditis, an enlargement of the heart, caused by a trauma to the heart, brought on by the small-pox vaccine. It was suggested that, as my father had been vaccinated at the onset of the outbreak, his vaccine was different in some way from the strain that most people were vaccinated with later on, including us as a family. They said there was no more they could do for him and he was brought home. My mother, a qualified nursing sister, nursed him at home and he eventually died in November 1964.

    My brother who has just celebrated his 50th birthday, has no memory of his father.

    • I am very sorry to hear your account of your father’s illness post his vaccination during the smallpox outbreak. I was a doctor during the smallpox out break. I have not come across any other cases similar to your father. As far as I am aware all the vaccines were similar but because of the amount needed were sourced from different supliers. Again I am sorry about your father.
      Kindest regards, David James

      • My family lived in Bradford during the 1961/62 SP outbreak. I was born in the April of 62. Mum was vaccinated while pregnant. Not long after I was born I contracted measles and chickenpox at the same time and was seriously ill. I made a full recovery but a short time after we had a visit from the ‘Health Ministry’. Mum was told that it was likely that I would be prone to viral conditions which has proved to be the case. I have quizzed mum but of course it all happened so long ago she struggles with the time line and finer details. I am now 55 years old. in 2003 I had a severe case of glandular fever lasting 2 years. Every viral condition I get now leaves me totally debilitated with severe head aches. Are you aware of such visits to women vaccinated during pregnancy and if so, what they were told? Mum is in her 80’s now, and the information is quite vague.

  7. My late father, Professor John Pathy, played a key but secret role in the 1962 South Wales smallpox outbreak as consultant in infectious diseases in Cardiff at the time. His role was not fully revealed until the broadcast of the ITV ‘Wales this Week’ program on the subject in February 2002. As he states in the program, ‘I had to continue with my general hospital duties; that would have been impossible if it was known that I had been in contact with smallpox’.

    I recall, as an eleven year old, being lined up with my younger siblings to be vaccinated (with inducements!) by my father – probably amongst the first to be so treated.

    I accompanied him on at least one occasion to Penhrys Isolation Hospital where he would park his car a good distance from the entrance, leave me, and walk the remaing distance with his bag of protective clothing. The area was known to both of us, as my father had been the Medical Superintendent at Llwnypia Hospital between 1952 and 1957.

  8. My husband and I worked in Polikoffs at the time of the outbreak, we were both 18 and remember the mass vaccination at the factory. I had to have two vaccinations as I was in a shop in Tonypandy the same time as a suspected case. My husband lived on Penrhys Road and can remember the ambulances going up the road and a while later the smoke from the isolation hospital where they were burning blankets etc from the ambulances.

  9. I remember as a 6 year old my father was a G.P. in Coventry with a very large practice and as such was vaccinated at an early stage. I remember him coming home to vaccinate me, my brother and two sisters and my mom in the kitchen and then returning to the clinic to vaccinate the general public. Towards the end of a long day he accidentally injected himself in the thumb and became very unwell for several days.

  10. I have just found your site on the Internet as I was looking up about smallpox after watching a television program today set in that time. I was reminded about it, so I was looking at what year it was, because I can remember being a little girl at primary school when I had the vaccination. What I can personally remember is my mother talking about an outbreak and everybody being worried. We lived in an Essex village called Tollesbury that was very small and very rural. I had the vaccine and I wasn’t very well. I remember being at school afterwards – how long I can’t remember – but my arm hurt. I remember having a horrible big scab round about the size of a ten pence coin – it wasn’t very nice. I remember being unwell, feeling what I would now describe as flu symptoms and I had a bad headache. I felt quite ill – I can’t remember how long I was unwell. I was ten years old at the time and I have a nasty scar on my left arm that is still visible. If I catch the sun it is more prominent. I remember well that when the vaccine was administered it was not an injection as such – it seemed like lots of needles and I felt like I was being scratched. That is all I can remember.

  11. I vaguely remember having the Smallpox vaccination but I haven’t got any marking on my skin to indicate that I was vaccinated. There was a long line of us at our Doctor’s surgery, all our neighbours went together. Is it likely that my memory is playing tricks on me or did I actually have it and it didn’t leave any scarring? It was in the day’s where medical records were not diligently completed like they are today.

  12. I travelled on the train from Port Talbot to Neath that Shuka Mia had used to come to Cardiff from Birmingham, and was told a few days later by the station staff at Neath to get vaccinated as soon as possible. This I did, and had flu like symptoms and an aching arm for a few days. My wife was also vaccinated, and we lost our first born child in early 1963. I often think that this was due to the vaccination given at this time, as I also recall the ill effects that the vaccination had on other members of the family and on the local community at the time.

  13. I was 13 at the time and lived in Cwmbran. All schoolchildren were vaccinated urgently and many suffered effects afterwards, sore arm, flu like symptoms, however I got Cow Pox! I was told that as the vaccine had to be produced in such numbers that some much have been ‘live’. I had to visit the GP every few days for regular monitoring. My doctor said he liked it when I was in the waiting room because it freaked out the time-wasters who left pretty quickly! The spots were in my hair, inside my mouth, everywhere – then they blistered. I remember the blisters on my ears weeping and creating a crust (apologies for the description!) and I got into trouble for pulling them off. Everywhere itched so much, I had calamine lotion and I think I was given something to try and reduce the irritation. I don’t remember any of my family or school friends having the same reaction.

  14. I was 13 when the outbreak began. Mum had had the vaccination in the army so it was my father, my sister and I who had the vaccination. My father and I had the worst reactions to the jab and we had large holes in our arms, we were told we would have died had we caught smallpox. We were quite ill although I still went to school and dad to work. I do remember my P E teacher’s reaction when she saw the site of my vaccination during a lesson; to say she looked sick is an understatement. We lived in a small village called Tilehurst in Berkshire. I attended Alfred Sutton Grammar for Girls in Reading. Until now I had no idea it started in Wales. Apart from me the rest of the family died in their early 60’s.

  15. I remember going to the GP surgery in New Barnet in 1962, where we had to queue up outside to get into the surgery waiting room where the queue continued right into the doctor’s surgery. I remember they scratched my arm and put drops on. I came out into the very crowded waiting room and fainted very dramatically – and for the first time in my life – banging the back of my head hard on a chair on the way down. My mum was mortified as I created quite a commotion and temporarily held up the queue as they stopped to tend me. I’ve remained a ‘fainter’ ever since – even though I became a nurse myself! My mum incidentally, was pregnant at the time and told the GP, who told her she must have the vaccination. Mum miscarried a few days later.

  16. My wife was nursing at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham during the Smallpox in early 1962. She was pregnant at the time. I was working in the University Medical School so we made enquiries about vaccination against Smallpox & the Professorial Department view was that it was necessary for nurses to be vaccinated even if pregnant so she was vaccinated in the early afternoon. Imagine our concern later in the day to hear the Medical Officer of Health for Birmingham on the radio announcing that pregnant ladies should NOT be vaccinated. Fortunately our eldest son born in August 1962 seems to have escaped without any problems.

    Bob Wellings

  17. I was a teenager in Mountain Ash , when the smallpox outbreak started. I can remember the fear that pervaded the area. We all were vaccinated, my mother Nell Denning had a nasty reaction to the vaccine. She had a hole in her arm the size of a half crown and 1/2 inch deep. It was a frightening time as people were unaware where the virus originated from. I can remember the consultant dying at Church Village hospital.

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