The history of the smallpox vaccine: The shot that changed the world

Dr Jenner performing his first vaccination, on James Phipps, a boy of 8. May 14, 1796

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Jenner’s smallpox vaccination, 100 years on (1796-1896)

The famous physician’s marvelous scientific revelation was not the result of an accident, as has been stated time and again

Edward Jenner, the discoverer of vaccination and one of the greatest benefactors of the human race, performed his first test experiment 100 years ago.

On May 14, 1796, he inoculated the boy Phipps from a pustule on the hand of a young woman who had got cowpox from one of her employer’s cows. In addition to his work in this line, he was a remarkable man, being a naturalist, a physiologist, a geologist, an advanced agricultural scientist and an eminent physician and surgeon.

Fitted by nature for scientific work, he was more inclined to it by the great John Hunter, under whom he studied medicine, and whose intimate friend he was until Hunter’s death.

In 1771, he prepared the natural history specimens brought back by Sir Joseph Banks, Capt Cook’s naturalist, on his first voyage of discovery, and for this work was offered the position of naturalist to Cook’s second expedition, but this offer was declined.

Before he was graduated in medicine, his attention was directed to a common belief among the country people near his home in Gloucestershire that a person who had once had cowpox was safe from smallpox. As soon as possible after going back to his native place, Berkeley, to practice medicine, he began to collect information on the subject. For several years the cows in that vicinity were free from cowpox, and he could make no experiments.

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Cowpox and smallpox

From the first, he was somewhat discouraged by his country physician acquaintances, who said they had no faith in the common belief, and had often seen people afflicted with smallpox after having had cowpox. On the other hand, he found several persons who had often been exposed to smallpox without infection after an attack of cowpox, and they attributed their immunity to the cowpox.

Five years of investigation as to the differences between the doctors and the dairy people convinced Jenner that there were several different eruptions all known as cowpox, and that one variety did protect against smallpox.

Edward Jenner - Smallpox vaccine 1790s

Having established this fact, the new difficulty arose that even after an attack of the true cowpox the milkers sometimes had smallpox. Long study and investigation showed the cause of this: that the cowpox was not a preventative unless it was communicated to the human at a particular stage of the eruption.

It was well for Jenner and for vaccination that this matter had to be thought and worked out, for if the vaccine theory had been published before this fact was discovered vaccination might have been set back half a century, certainly for many years.

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These investigations had occupied about 15 years without Jenner’s being able to find a single case of cowpox. Nothing shows better the fact that he had a truly scientific mind than the fact that he arrived at these correct conclusions before he had the opportunity of testing them by actual experiment. From 1773 to 1796 he was studying the subject without seeing a cow or person with cowpox.

One boy without smallpox, one boy with smallpox - c1910
One boy without smallpox, one boy with smallpox – c1910

The first inoculation

When the opportunity finally came in 1796, the boy Phipps was inoculated. The result was as predicted by Jenner.

Afterwards, the boy was inoculated with smallpox, and this inoculation had no effect, as Jenner had predicted would be the case. After years of most patient work and investigation, Jenner had the satisfaction of knowing that his reasoning was correct, and that smallpox could be robbed of its terrors.

So far as health and life are concerned, no other discovery ever made can be compared with the discovery of vaccination. For years smallpox had been the terror of the world, and Jenner had the opportunity of becoming probably the richest man in the world by keeping his discovery a secret. He was too much of a man to do that.

After his successful experiment on the boy Phipps, Jenner went all over his work and repeated his experiments before making his work public. Knowing that he would meet with criticism and ridicule, he wished to fortify himself at every point.

In the spring of 1798, he prepared the manuscript for his pamphlet, which was published in June, 1798. As he had expected, he became a target for all sorts of abuse and malice, especially in England.

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The medical men of the continent were as a rule more scientific than those in England at that time, and there the pamphlet was treated with more consideration; for scientific men are not prone to reject what is new without fair tests. In England, again, many medical men condemned vaccination after giving it unfair trials and refusing to follow his directions.

The first copy of Jenner’s pamphlet that came to America fell into the hands of Prof Waterhouse, of Cambridge. Struck with the value of the discovery, should it be all that was claimed for it, he wrote an account of it for the Columbian Sentinel of March 2, 1799, and brought it before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which John Adams was president.

Waterhouse sent to England for vaccine virus, and vaccinated seven of his own children, six successfully. Then, like Jenner, he inoculated them with smallpox, but this did not take. That was the beginning of vaccination in America.

In 1801, Dr Waterhouse got some new virus and instructions from Jenner, and sent some to Thomas Jefferson, who was then president of the United States.

Jefferson immediately vaccinated nearly 200 persons in the families of his sons-in-law and neighbors, and his success increased the popularity of vaccination in America.

Dryvax Smallpox Vaccine (1962)
Dryvax Smallpox Vaccine (1962) – Photo courtesy The Smithsonian

Jenner spent all of his time on the vaccination

For four years after the publication of his pamphlet, Jenner gave practically all of his time to vaccination, and most of it gratuitously, and in addition to spending several thousand dollars a year in the work. Parliament was petitioned to compensate him for his great work, and after a debate, he was voted a miserable £10,000, much less than he could have made in private practice, had he accepted the invitation to go to London.

Several years afterwards, the facts being again brought before Parliament, he was voted an additional £20,000.

In one way or another Jenner was honored by the government or princes and potentates of every civilized country. Diplomas and honors of learned bodies were showered upon him, and medals were struck in his honor. In England, on the continent and in America, the clergy prayed for him and preached the gospel of vaccination.

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His pamphlet was translated into almost every European and Asiatic language. The Spanish government, then more civilized and wide awake then at present, fitted out an expedition that carried vaccinators and vaccine virus to all the Spanish possessions in the new world.

So greatly was Jenner honored that during the war between France and England, his personal passport to an Englishman traveling for his health was honored by Napoleon on many occasions.

Bitterly as Jenner and his discovery were fought during the first 25 years of vaccination, nothing could succeed against figures showing the decline of smallpox year by year after 1798, when the discovery was made known. In some countries in which the annual number of deaths from smallpox had been thousands, it fell to tens, often to less than fifty.

The immunization saved thousands of lives

The mere saving of lives and of days of illness does not appeal to some men; but the saving of wealth touches a popular chord. During the first four years of vaccination, the saving of life and days of illness resulted in England alone in saving a wealth to the amount of £800,000, from vaccination alone.

Making no allowance for increase of population, and taking no account of the greater risk due to more rapid transportation and closer intercommunication, the wealth saved by England alone by vaccination during the century of vaccination amounts to £80,000,000.

The amount is of course much greater, as will be seen by the fact that the cholera epidemic of 1884-87 cost southern Europe 150,000 lives and more than $300,000,000; and smallpox without vaccination would be a worse disease than cholera, far worse than yellow fever.– WG Eggleston

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