Since the COVID-19 epidemic, vaccines have become something that needs debating, apparently. For decades, most people just got their shots. In France, we even have a law that says that we have to get vaccinated at a young age for a variety of diseases that recently reemerged in the US because parents apparently decided not to believe in medicine. I don’t understand, and I’m apparently not the only one. It’s been proven that it works. On the other end, I was an avid watcher of the X-Files, so I kind of understand that there’s a conspiracy theory angle. Anyway, as I recently read about the return of previously eradicated diseases, I dig a little because I was curious to know:
What Was the First Vaccine?
For a long time, there was this idea that healthy people exposed themselves to smallpox and other diseases in order to develop a natural resistance. It was the “Variolation” (in France, small pow is called la variole). At first, it was mostly practiced in Asia, then in the Middle East.
Lady Mary Introduced the Variolation to the Western World
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who was an aristocrat and writer married to the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire observed the practice in Turkey—where it was already a common practice. When she returned to England in 1721, she asked for her two daughters to be inoculated against smallpox. Lady Mary was familiar with smallpox, having contracted the disease at a young age (as her brother who didn’t survive), and didn’t want her children to suffer the same ordeal.
She did what was necessary to make the practice known, even convincing the Princess of Wales to test the practice. A few months later, a test was conducted on condemned prisoners who were offered their liberty if they survived—they walked free.
Still, Lady Mary had to fight the fear of inoculation and did it by writing an article to describe the process (but she used a nom de plume). Anyway, the Princess of Wales had also become a fervent advocate of the variolation, her two daughters were successfully inoculated and other Royal families followed her example—like Catherine the Great and her son a few decades later.
Variolation was not the same as a vaccine though.
Benjamin Jesty and the Cowpox
Benjamin Jesty, a farmer living in Yetminster, was another British citizen who decided to fight against smallpox in a new way. In 1774, a new epidemic reached his village. Convinced that cowpox could protect against smallpox—his two dairymaids Ann Notley and Mary Reade had previously contracted cowpox and were not infected by smallpox—he took his family to a farm in nearby Chetnole that housed a cow suffering from cowpox.
Using a stocking needle, Jesty inoculated his wife, Elizabeth, and two sons with material from the cow’s lesion. If the two sons got mild local reactions and quickly recovered from them, Elizabeth’s arm became severely inflamed, but she eventually got better.
At first, the practice was harshly criticized, the idea of introducing an animal disease into the human body was deemed disgusting, and the overall operation was considered inhuman by Jesty’s neighbors. Despite that, it worked as the Jesty children never contracted smallpox, despite being exposed to it.
Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine
What Benjamin Jesty was a crude version, and a not documented one, of what Edward Jenner did in 1796. This British physician and scientist may not have heard of Jesty (or he did, there’s no indication of one or the other) but the facts that dairymaids were often affected by cowpox and developed that way immunity to smallpox was known in the rural community at one point.
Jenner decided to do a scientific experiment to prove it. He scraped material from a cowpox sore on the hand of a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes and inoculated it into a young boy named James Phipps—he developed a mild case of cowpox but did not get sick from it. Satisfied with that result, Edward Jenner decided to go even further and deliberately exposed Phipps to smallpox—he did not contract the disease.
Being a scientist, Jenner had documented the process and, in 1798, he published his findings and observations in a landmark work titled “An Inquiry Into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae.” This is in fact the origin of the word vaccination, a term derived from the Latin word “vacca,” meaning cow.
Jenner’s work was initially met with skepticism but was progressively embarrassed by the medical community, especially after being supported by members of the Royal Society. Vaccination became increasingly accepted as a legitimate and effective method of preventing smallpox. This led to the eventual eradication of smallpox but also paved the way for the development of vaccines against other diseases.
If you like to read about breakthroughs in the medical field, I wrote about Margaret Sanger who’s life work led to the creation of the Pill.