Vaccination is one of the world's great medical triumphs, saving countless millions of lives. Vaccines have a fascinating history but do you know how they were first discovered and what were they used to treat?
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La vaccination antirabique. Affiche destinée à l'enseignement scolaire v. 1960. L'enfant, supposé être Joseph Meister se fait vacciner en présence de Louis Pasteur, de médecins et de sa mère en costume d'alsacienne. by Editions Rossignol - Montmorillan. Vienne.Institut Pasteur
Common wisdom says it was Edward Jenner, a Gloucestershire doctor. But this is only partly true. We'll get back to Jenner later but the truth is, like so many things, the Chinese had already figured out the basic principles of inoculation some centuries before.
They noticed people who had survived smallpox seemed to be immune from then on. They came up with the idea of taking scabs from people with mild cases, drying them and using them to inoculate the young. Not much is known about when this practice started or its efficacy rates.
Some claim it was as early as 200 BCE. Other stories say similar practices were taking place in India and Africa but there is little evidence to back this up. And while the Chinese may have been first, it wasn't until 18th century England that the process became reliable.
Like others, Jenner had noticed that milkmaids who contracted cowpox rarely seemed to catch the more deadly smallpox. He began to believe they had developed immunity and set about trying to establish how and why this happened.
In a move unlikely to be approved today, he gathered pus from the cowpox sores found on the hands of local milkmaids. He then scratched this into the arm of an 8-year-old boy called James Phipps on May 4, 1796. This was the first official vaccination.
It did work. But in order to prove it, Jenner had to expose Phipps to smallpox. The boy was able to recover quickly from the disease, proving Jenner's theory but perhaps asking some questions about the medical ethics at play. Jenner might not have got away with it today.
Very much so. As well as a number of Covid 19 vaccines developed in an astonishingly short time, there are still global vaccination programmes against Polio, Yellow Fever, Meningitis, Diphtheria and a range of other deadly diseases.
Without these vaccines, and the ability to create new ones, tens of millions of lives would have been lost and immeasurable suffering caused. And all of that from rubbing some pus into a little boy's arm.