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A Brief History of the Vaccine

A Brief History of the VaccineThe history of the vaccine begins with the smallpox, a terrible and deadly disease effectively eradicated from the world by a vaccine. Unlike most modern medical procedures, the history of the vaccine is long. Commercially-available antibiotics date back to the 1920s. Effective anesthesia, cesarean sections with low mortality rates, chemotherapy, dialysis, and bypass operations were developed during the last fifty years. Vaccination, however, is one of the oldest known medical procedures still used in the health care community today.

Smallpox is a serious, contagious, and potentially fatal infectious disease. Symptoms of smallpox include small welts over the entire body including the eyelids and soft tissue of the mouth and vagina, high fever, and headache. As the welts heal, scabs form. Complications of the disease include scarring, blindness, and death. Prior to vaccination against smallpox, 30% of individuals who contracted the disease died. Less common but more deadly forms left even more people dead. When Europeans brought the disease to the Americas and Australia, nearly 95% of the native populations died. The only known defense against smallpox is vaccination.

Thanks to vaccination, smallpox was declared eradicated from the world after the last case of the disease was recorded in Africa in 1977.

Prior to the modern smallpox vaccine, doctors used a process called variolation to reduce the severity of a smallpox infection as well as to reduce the chances of contracting the disease. Variolation, or inoculation, involved using the scabs from a survivor of a smallpox infection to induce a case of the disease in another individual. People inhaled the ground up scabs through the nose or rubbed the scabs into wounds on the skin. Smallpox variolation was risky and sometimes resulted in death. However, as the only available procedure for preventing smallpox, people were willing to take the risk.

Then in 1796, a doctor named Edward Jenner discovered the piece of the puzzle that would lead to modern vaccination. Cowpox is a virus closely related to smallpox carried by cows. Unlike the general population, milkmaids — girls and women who worked closely with cows — rarely contracted smallpox. Instead, milkmaids often felt under the weather for a few days with the cowpox but then never got sit again, with either cowpox or smallpox. Cowpox was the key to preventing smallpox.

Noting the protection that cowpox gave milkmaids against smallpox, Jenner conducted an experiment. He infected a young boy with cowpox and then exposed the boy to smallpox. Despite repeated exposure, the boy never contracted smallpox. Jenner successfully inoculated the boy against smallpox using the milder cowpox virus. The experiment would be repeated and refined until the creation of the modern smallpox vaccine that rid the world of the terrible and deadly disease.


Thanks to a bovine virus, an observant doctor, and a brave little boy, the first modern vaccine was created in 1796. Less than 200 years later, the world was rid of smallpox, a disease that claimed many lives over the course of human history. The discovery that becoming infected with the milder cowpox led to resistance against smallpox paved the way for the twenty-two vaccines and counting currently available.


Herlihy, Stacy Mintzer & E. Allison Hagood. 2012. Your baby’s best shot: Why vaccines are safe and save lives. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: Lanham.


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A Brief History of the Vaccine: