The first 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 some pus taken from a blister on the hand of a milkmaid who has 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 does get sick, but within a week or so, he recovers.  Then, on July 1, Jenner takes the next critical step—he applies actual smallpox matter to an incision on Phipps. The boy suffers no ill effects and Jenner believes he may have found a safe way to protect people from smallpox.  Using the Latin word for cowpox—vaccinia—Jenner calls 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 and they seemed more likely to be able to avoid a recurrence in the future.   It 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 widely 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 of 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.

More slices of history:

The Pill Arrives: May 9, 1960

Hello, Cheerios: May 1, 1941
First hit workout video: April 24, 1982  
Insulin goes mainstream: April 15, 1923
Polio vaccine celebrated:  April 12, 1955
First artificial heart: April 4, 1969
First batch of Coca-Cola: March 29, 1886
Elephant man case presented: March 17, 1885
Flu pandemic begins: March 11, 1918  
Aspirin is born: March 6, 1899