Why We Aren’t All Dying of Smallpox: the History of Vaccines

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Why We Aren’t All Dying of Smallpox: the History of Vaccines

Why We Aren’t All Dying of Smallpox: the History of Vaccines

WARNING: This article includes an image of smallpox patients.

  1. First attempt

The first vaccinations were long before the smallpox vaccinations of the 1700s, sometime around the year 1000. Predictably, this early use, like most major innovations in the West, was implemented first in China. Figures.

The Chinese used a form of variolation, which means that they took smallpox scabs from currently infected people, left them out until completely dried, then blew them up people’s noses in the hope that the inoculated person would contract a mild form of the disease. Given that the people contracted the weakened smallpox, they would survive and then have an immunity to smallpox. Donors were specially chosen from mild smallpox cases to minimize the possibility of a serious infection.

  1. Rampant plagues

In the West, however, this kind of immunization was viewed as folklore. For about 700 years, plagues, especially smallpox, swept through the western world, killing millions. Especially hard hit were the Native Americans, many of whom were killed before the Europeans could even observe them, as the disease raced ahead of the settlers so quickly.


By the time the 1700s rolled around, smallpox had become the leading cause of death in Europe.


  1. Early inoculations

Meanwhile, variolations spread to Turkey. In 1718, Lady Mary Montagu, while visiting Turkey, had her 6-year-old son inoculated by Dr. Charles Maitland. Impressed, Lady Montagu vowed to bring variolation back to England with her. She did so by bringing Dr. Maitland back and having him inoculate her second child, a 2-year-old daughter. The practice slowly spread as people realized that, while 2-3 percent of people got sick and died from variolation, that was a crazy amount better than the 20-30 percent who would die from the disease normally.

Thank God for you, Lady Montagu

  1. Institutionalization in the army

In 1776, it is possible that smallpox was used as a weapon. A force of 10,000 Continental Army soldiers were in Quebec, and a British Commander may have deliberately sent recently variolated citizens into the Army’s encampments. 5,000 soldiers fell ill, including the task force commander, who died, forcing the unit to retreat south. The next year, George Washington ordered mandatory inoculation for troops that had not had smallpox before, even inoculating recruits passing through Virginia.


  1. Jenner’s breakthrough

Then on May 14, 1796, Edward Jenner came up with an idea – that an infection with cowpox could protect against smallpox infection. Cowpox is a related, uncommon disease in cows that can be spread to people. Jenner inoculated an 8-year-old boy with matter from a cowpox sore – the boy felt bad for several days, but then recovered. Jenner then tried to infect the boy with real smallpox. The boy remained healthy.

NPG 62; Edward Jenner by James Northcote

  1. Governments promote vaccination

Word of Jenner’s success spread. Soon, governments began seeing the merits of vaccination, so that, by the early 19th century, both the Russian Empress and U.S. President Thomas Jefferson endorsed the process.

  1. Expanding vaccination

Following the first vaccination, the need for more vaccines rose. After all, smallpox isn’t the only infectious disease which has been killing people. Some of the most frightening names in infectious disease have been conquered by vaccination – names like Anthrax, Rabies, Whooping Cough, Measles, Mumps, Yellow Fever and freaking Polio. This particular Rogue’s Gallery of deadly disease, any one of which set off a panic nowadays, have been beaten back by one concept: Vaccination.

Oh, and there was an outbreak of smallpox in that time – except that it occurred only when people stopped getting vaccinated.

Related topics anthrax, disease, History, inoculation, polio, smallpox, vaccination, variolation
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