Vaccinating against disease may feel like a modern scientific development. However, fighting disease with inoculation was first recorded over a thousand years ago.
When humans started living alongside animals, it created an environment for microbes to pass between species with the results that diseases began to grow throughout the human population.
Many years ago people noticed that when you survived an illness, it was rare to get it for a second time. If you did get the same illness twice, it was unlikely to be as severe the second time of contracting it. This led medical experts of the time to think that if an illness was given to people in a small, safe dose, those individuals would be more likely to survive the same illness if they later contracted it.
Early records show that the first successful inoculations against disease were most likely started in China around the 10th Century to fight smallpox. It is hard to pinpoint precisely when the practice started, as it was also used in Africa and Turkey.
In the book ‘The Life and Death of Smallpox’ by Ian and Jennifer Glynn, the process of smallpox inoculation used in China is described. The method used ground up smallpox scabs that were blown or inhaled into the nostril of a healthy person.
The introduction of a low dose of the smallpox disease gave people some of the symptoms, but they made a full recovery and were unlikely to get the disease again.
As humans explored the world, the spread of smallpox started to affect more people. Through traveller’s tales and experiences, the technique of inoculation spread worldwide. In the 1700s it reached Europe and America where the method of preventing the disease started to be known as variolation which was based on the Latin name for smallpox – variola.
In Turkey, British people learned about the scratch method of inoculation. This is where a powdered scab or pus from a smallpox pustule is placed into a scratch of a healthy person. During smallpox outbreaks, people would inoculate their children using this technique.
However, these types of inoculation method did have their problems. Some people would still contract severe cases of the disease. While infectious, the condition could easily be spread to others.
The First Vaccination
The scars caused by the smallpox rash became well known as the aftereffect of surviving the disease. In the British countryside, people started to notice that milkmaids often had a far clearer complexion than others and seemed immune to the scaring pockmarks.
While inoculating patients from smallpox in Gloucestershire, the English Physician Edward Jenner decided to find out more about the local farming communities. He discovered that the milkmaids and locals were becoming infected with cowpox.
It turned out that cowpox was a much milder form of the smallpox disease. Instead of getting a full-body rash people typically only got a single pustule on their hands. The farming community had noticed this and had been inoculating themselves using cowpox pustules.
To test the theory, Edward Jenner took a sample of cowpox matter and injected this into a young boy. The boy had symptoms of a mild fever and developed a small rash with one scab. After six weeks, Jenner injected smallpox matter into the boy, and he showed no signs of having the disease.
Jenner struggled to find suitable scientific glassware for the storage of his vaccine with doctors around the world championing different solutions.
Edward Jenner published his findings and called the process vaccination after the Latin word for cow (vacca). By 1853 vaccination had replaced the variolation technique and it became standard practice in the prevention of smallpox.
Due to a global mass vaccination programme, the world was declared free from the smallpox disease in 1979.