How Did It Become… The Smallpox Vaccine?

Everything You Wish You Didn't Know

Article by G. Breen
Published on April 8, 2019.

In the late 18th Century, smallpox was the leading cause of death in England. The disease was mostly spread by face-to-face contact, and coughing and sneezing onto other people. It ended up killing 3 out of 10 people who contracted the disease.

This was a major health problem in England, and little could be done about it. Back then, you couldn’t just pop down to your local General Practitioner and get some antibiotics to help you. People didn’t even know germs existed, so good luck getting sanitary health conditions when your drinking water has been contaminated with rotting garbage. The general medical advice at the time was to drain out some of your blood and pray really hard.

Now, there was a somewhat effective way to prevent smallpox. People would try to get a milder form of smallpox to build up their immunity. While this worked, people were still at the risk of dying from the milder disease.

Edward Jenner, an English country doctor, found a solution. He lived in the countryside, where a lot of milkmaids worked on farms. Many of these women would catch cowpox, a non-deadly disease that would cover the sufferer in sores. Jenner realized that these milkmaids never caught smallpox, and he decided that smallpox could be prevented by giving it to someone.

He tested his theory on the 9-year-old son of his gardener (note to self: experiment on the children of those you hire; you can put “the employer is not responsible for any harm done to your offspring” in their contract). He took the pus out of a milkmaid’s cowpox sore and injected it into the boy’s arm. With some stranger’s pus flowing through his veins, the boy had cowpox for a few weeks. Then, a few months later, Jenner exposed the boy to the smallpox vaccine multiple times, and the boy never caught the disease. Jenner published his findings, and the country quickly adopted it. Almost a hundred years later, they switched from cowpox to the vaccinia virus, giving it the name “vaccine.”

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