Blame it on Jenner

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Smallpox Inoculation Powder 
from India; Photo from the CDC
Edward Jenner vaccinated his own children [except with cowpox, not smallpox] to test what centuries of peasants and village folk already knew—that inoculations saved lives.  Many people in rural areas of Greece, Arabia, North Africa, Persia, India, and China used smallpox scabs and pustules to inoculate themselves and their families.

Occasionally the procedure would backfire, and patients would get really sick, and some would die.  Jenner’s discovery of milkmaid’s immunity to smallpox [via exposure to cowpox], brought to his attention by another milkmaid, led him to the use of cowpox for a safer inoculation technique. 

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Smallpox versus cowpox innoculation;
From Wellcome Foundation

Dr. Jenner wasn't the first to 1774 Benjamin Jesty immunized himself and family with cowpox. Note that he lived a long life.

Copyright Sarah Smith and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

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Edward Jenner
But Jenner started it officially—vaccinations—and organized preventative medicine ensued.  If you’ve ever met a person who is antivaccine, blame it all on Jenner. Of course it wasn’t his fault antivaxxers organized, but his 1798 paper Inquiry into the causes and effects of the variole vaccinae lead to greater rates of inoculation, and inoculations done more safely

In England alone, between 1810 and 1820, smallpox deaths decreased by half. This “of the cow” entity given the moniker "vaccinae," became a cause of the Epidemiological Society of London, which lead to organized efforts to vaccinate and organized efforts to resist.

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In Paul Offit’s book Deadly Choices:  How the Antivaccine Movement Threatens Us All, a whole chapter, Past is Prologue, highlights how the after-effects of Jenner’s discovery lead the Epidemiological Society of London to organize and lobby government for better preventative health for its people.  They asked the English government to step in and require smallpox vaccination.

The English 1853 Bill to Further Extend and Make Compulsory the Practice of Vaccination meant well, but wasn’t enforced. Enforcement increased in 1867 with fines and imprisonment for those who didn’t get vaccinated or have their children vaccinated.  Herein lied the birth of the antivaccine movement. Richard Butler Gibbs started the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League [ACVL] in 1866.  He and many others didn’t like being told what to do, and thought that the fines were so high as to cajole the poor to get vaccinated. 

The ACVL spread antivaccine propaganda with outright falsehoods about science and the goal of preventative medicine.  There was resistance in the Americas too, but globally, the vaccination rates were enough to eradicate smallpox.  The last infection was seen in 1977.
Photo of Antivaccine Postcard from StampCircut; sold for 4000 pounds
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1904  Brazilian Antivaccine
poster from Wikipedia
Again, or still, there are people that use the same tactics, with the addition of the internet, to instill fear and misinformation about vaccination.  Some vaccine preventable diseases such as pertussis and measles are resurging again, thanks to the efforts of the antivaccine campaigns. These infections can spread and potentially mutate into greater problems than they currently are. That's Jenner's fault too, perhaps.

Other Links related to vaccination and smallpox:
For Fun:

Alien Smallpox Turkey by ~NickNP on deviantART


  1. A fascinating story on the history of vaccines. I had no idea that's where the term came from-- inoculation from COWpox. This piece dovetails very nicely with your following post on smallpox eradication--a stand-alone backstory. :)

  2. Thank you for your comment...isn't it great learning new things? I love those little tidbits that make you say " I understand a little more..." As always, I appreciate your feedback!


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