A CHANCE discovery in 2010 in Kingswood of glass slides containing smallpox vaccine from 1841 opened a window on Australia's earliest public health campaigns.
"It shows efforts to prevent infectious diseases in Australia have been with us since the early days of colonisation," said James Branley, a microbiologist and infectious diseases physician at Nepean Hospital.
The slides were found in the Kingswood archives of the State Records Authority.
Dr Branley examined the slides to ensure there were no active traces of smallpox or other dangerous pathogens lying dormant.
"The specimen between the two slides was pus sent to the then NSW governor George Gipps as evidence they had vaccine," Dr Branley said.
"The pus was taken from a female convict's arm — we don't know who she was — at the Female Factory in Parramatta, now the site of Cumberland Hospital."
He said the serum most likely was derived from a smallpox-related virus.
"Smallpox was a much-feared disease but you could protect people against it with a vaccine."
Remarkably, the medical profession of the day did not know about germs or how vaccines worked. "Germ theory would only come some 30 years later but it was understood if you took some infected material from one person you could inoculate another."
He said many diseases had been banished over the past 170 years. "But we have other infectious diseases, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria."