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~ “The chilling experiment which created the first vaccine” ~

Published: Jun 3rd, 2021 10:29 pmBy Asit Bali

The 1721 Smallpox was a terrible disease and used to kill millions. Smallpox outbreak in the US city of Boston wiped out 8% of the population. Ports were particularly vulnerable. With the rise in global trade and the spread of empires, smallpox ravaged communities around the world. Around a third of adults infected with smallpox would be expected to die, and eight out of 10 infants. In the early 18th Century, the disease is calculated to have killed some 400,000 people every year in Europe alone.

Treatments ranged from the useless to the bizarre included placing people in hot rooms  or sometimes cold rooms and intoxication.

There was however one genuine cure. Known as inoculation or variolation, it involved taking the pus from someone suffering with smallpox and scratching it into the skin of a healthy individual.

First practiced in Africa and Asia before being eventually brought to Europe in the 18th Century and North America by an enslaved man named One simus, inoculation usually resulted in a mild case of the disease. But not always as some people contracted full-on smallpox and all those inoculated became carriers of the disease, inadvertently passing it on to people they met.  So, a better solution was needed.

During smallpox epidemic in the west of England in 1774, In a well-known in rural England a group of people seemed to be immune to smallpox. Milkmaids instead contracted a relatively mild cattle disease called cowpox, which left little scarring. Farmer Benjamin Jesty decided to try something. He scratched some pus from cowpox lesions on the udders of a cow into the skin of his wife and sons and none of them contracted smallpox.

“However, until many years later that anyone knew of Jesty’s work, The man credited with inventing vaccination and more importantly popularizing it”.


Edward Jenner was a country doctor working in the small town of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, had trained in London under one of the foremost surgeons of the day. Jenner In 1796, after gathering some circumstantial evidence from farmers and milkmaids, decided to try a potentially fatal experiment on a child. “He was thinking, ‘I want to find an alternative, something that's safer, that's less terrifying”.

He took some pus from cowpox lesions on the hands of a young milkmaid, Sarah Nelms, and scratched it into the skin of eight-year old James Phipps. After a few days of mild illness, James recovered sufficiently for Jenner to inoculate the boy with matter from a smallpox blister. James did not develop smallpox, nor did any of the people he came into close contact with.

Jenner didn't seek to make any money from his vaccine, he wasn't interested in patenting. “He just wanted people to know about it and he wanted to share it. As Jenner realized that his smallpox vaccine – the name derived from the Latin for cowpox, vaccinia – had the potential to transform medicine and save lives. But he also knew he would only halt the disease if he could vaccinate as many people as possible.

He converted a rustic summerhouse in his garden into his Temple of Vaccinia and invited local people to be vaccinated after church on Sunday.

“He wrote to other physicians offering them samples of the vaccine material and encouraging them to do it themselves so that people were vaccinated by their own local trusted health professional,” Gower says. “It's a theme that we see now in terms of vaccine advocacy and ensuring acceptance of a vaccine is the right message delivered by the right person.”

After Jenner published his findings, news of the discovery spread across Europe. And then, thanks to the support of the King of Spain, around the world.

King Charles IV had lost several members of his own family to smallpox, while others – including his daughter Maria Luisa – were left scarred after surviving the disease. When he heard of Jenner’s vaccine, he commissioned a physician to lead a global expedition to deliver it to the furthest reaches of the Spanish Empire. Although to be fair, most of these areas of the world were places European colonists had introduced smallpox to in the first place.

In 1803, the ship sailed for South America. On board were 22 orphans to act as vaccine carriers as there is no way of mass-producing vaccine, so they give it to a child’ and “The child will develop the lesion, then they take it from their child a couple of days later, give it to the next child and so on and so forth down the line.”  The children were cared for on the journey by the orphanage director, Isabel de Zendala y Gomez, who also brought along her own son to contribute to the mission.

Farmer Benjamin Jesty and Jenner did all this without knowing what he was dealing with. Dividing forces, the expedition travelled through the Caribbean, South and Central America and eventually crossed the Pacific to reach the Philippines. Within 20 years of its discovery, Jenner’s vaccine was already saving millions of lives. Soon, smallpox vaccination was common practice around the world. It was completely eradicated in 1979.


“But Jenner did all this without knowing what he was dealing with. Farmer Benjamin Jesty and Jenner are up there as one of top scientific heroes” While, “Jenner’s determination and innovation changed the world and saved countless millions of lives and continues to save lives.”


“It gives us lot of hope for the Covid-19 vaccine as now we have 200 years of knowledge of viruses and the immune system.”

Blog Information Source:

Editor of the History of Vaccines website - Epidemiologist René Najera.

Professor of immunology at the University of Manchester - Sheila Cruickshank.


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