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Charles Kellaway, Australian medical researche...

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 The focus of this site is on capturing the details of the lives of our ancestors, both those historically significant people and the everyday people usually not listed in encyclopaedias, histories, or even “people’s histories”. Along the way, the site will also provide information about the historical and social context in which our ancestors found themselves. 

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I found an entry there for my Dr JHL CUMPSTON whose history can be seen at


Bundaberg was the location of a  health-related disaster in January 1928, when 12 children died shortly after receiving injections of diphtheria vaccine. At the time, the vaccine was created by the toxin-antitoxin, or TAT process, where diphtheria toxin was combined with antibodies from horses, which served to eliminate the toxicity of the toxin while leaving it intact enough to stimulate a long-lasting immunological response in the recipient. The vaccine, produced by the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne – world renowned for the quality of its work and products – was dispensed to many of the city’s children from late 1927 without incident. However, because of fears that the preservative usually included in the TAT preparation might render the vaccine ineffective, it had been left out of the batch supplied to Bundaberg. Unfortunately, the associated warning did not reach the local Medical Officer of Health, Dr Ewing Thomson, and he continued to re-use the batch of vaccine over a period of weeks, including immunising his own son. On 27 January 1928 Thomson inoculated 21 children aged from one to nine years old; over the following 36 hours 18 became very ill and 12 died. One family lost all three of their children in the disaster, and two more families watched two of their children die. Not surprisingly, the ‘Bundaberg tragedy’ or ‘serum tragedy’ – as it became known – created a media sensation both in Australia and around the world, causing a halt in diphtheria immunisation programs as far afield as New Zealand and Cape Town. Given the precarious nature of mass immunisation programs at the time, the Bundaberg tragedy also potentially compromised the careers of the Minister of Health, Dr Sir Neville Howse, and the Director General of Health, Dr (John) Howard Cumpston.

Initial fears that the TAT process had failed to neutralize the diphtheria toxin in this instance were allayed by an Australian Royal Commission.[11] This Commission, headed by the director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Charles Kellaway, found that the vaccine had become contaminated by Staphylococcus aureus, probably from Thomson’s imperfect sterilisation technique. In the Bundaberg heat, these bacteria had multiplied in the vaccine, contaminating the serum with a massive quantity of a different toxin (see toxic shock syndrome). As a result of this finding, the Royal Commission issued a strong recommendation, adopted by all major manufacturers, that all vaccines packaged for administration of multiple doses should incorporate an antibacterial preservative. After testing of various compounds for toxicity and compatibility with the vaccine, the optimal preservative was determined to be thiomersal, which, ironically, has now become controversial due to questions of its own toxicity. By 1931, CSL had replaced the TAT formulation with diphtheria anatoxin (or toxoid), which was claimed to be a safer product.

The Bundaberg tragedy set back the cause of mass immunisation in Australia by several years, and its consequences were remembered for decades in the town. Ewing Thomson stayed in Bundaberg for several years but then left, claiming that the fault lay with CSL’s inadequate labelling rather than his procedures. However, in addition to improving manufacturing of vaccines, the Royal Commission helped raise the profile of medical research in Australia and provided an important intellectual impetus for the future Nobel Prize winning immunologist Macfarlane Burnet, who had conducted key bacteriological work during the investigation.

About mallerstang

Member of the Guild of One Name Studies researching the name CUMPSTON and its variants. You can see my website at I have a new study of the name LAXEN with its own blog at and a further research blog which is not registered as a one name study of KNAGGS of Flamborough
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