The 1st Vaccination: May 14, 1796
A young English boy named James Phipps is given an unusual treatment by the local country doctor. The physician is Edward Jenner, and he makes an incision in the boy’s arm and applies to it pus taken from a blister on the hand of a milkmaid who had contracted cowpox. Jenner is acting on a theory based on lore among the area’s farmers that milkmaids who developed cowpox somehow avoided catching smallpox.
The young boy did get sick, but within a week or so, he recovered. Then, on July 1, Jenner took the next critical step—he applied actual smallpox matter to an incision on Phipps. The boy suffered no ill effects. Jenner believee he may have found a safe way to protect people from smallpox. Using the Latin word for cowpox—vaccinia—Jenner called his treatment “vaccination.”
Prior to Jenner’s discovery, the most common approach to fighting smallpox was variolation, which involved exposing people to smallpox virus. Those people would develop the disease, but often a less severe version of it, and they seemed more likely to be able to avoid a recurrence in the future. This may first have been used as a way to fight smallpox in China as early as 1000 A.D. It also was used in India, then spread to the Middle East and Africa, and by the 18th century, was well-established as the treatment of choice in Europe, particularly Great Britain. This tactic likewise became accepted in Britain’s colonies and George Washington required that it be used on men drafted into his Continental Army.
But the use of smallpox virus as protection came with risks. It killed some people and caused the spread of other diseases, such as tuberculosis and syphilis, which were transmitted through the procedure. So Jenner’s use of a cowpox virus, which appeared to have no lasting harmful effects, was potentially a great breakthrough.
Still, his approach wasn’t embraced at first by Great Britain’s medical establishment, which doubted that a country doctor could have made such an important discovery. In fact, he was ridiculed in some circles. Critics, especially the clergy, claimed it was repulsive and ungodly to inoculate someone with material from a diseased animal. A satirical cartoon published in 1802 showed people who had been vaccinated sprouting cow's heads.
In time, though, Jenner’s smallpox vaccinations took hold, and in 1840, 17 years after he died, the British government banned all other preventive treatments against smallpox. Strictly speaking, he didn’t invent the concept of vaccination—although he did name it-- but his work represented the first scientific attempt to control an infectious disease by the deliberate use of vaccination. Scientists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries followed his model to develop vaccines to fight many deadly diseases, including polio, whooping cough, measles, tetanus, yellow fever, typhus and hepatitis B.
In 1979, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox, which killed at least 300 million people in the 20th century alone, had been eradicated on the planet and that no more vaccinations were necessary.
In recent years, though, vaccinations have come under fire by some parents who say they fear a link between childhood vaccines and autism--a connection made by actress Jenny McCarthy during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007.
Since then, numerous medical and health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine, have said that there's no scientific evidence of such a connection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) weighed in with its own study in 2013, one that reinforced the evidence that vaccines did not cause autism.
More slices of history