Since it all seems to be about praising or loathing a vaccine today, I thought this would be a good time to look into the history of a couple of them. This week let’s look at the one that most famously got the whole inoculation thing started.
Smallpox makes COVID-19 look like a very small potato. Or it did. Before it was all but eradicated it killed 500 million people in the 20th century alone. Those who caught it had a 30 percent fatality rate, and an even worse 80 percent fatality for infants. Even surviving it was a trip through hell.
An article in the World Journal of History, “The Smallpox Epidemics in America”
Author S. Forman in his book “Dr Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill and the Birth of American Liberty” described it like this:
“The head is swollen to a monstrous size, the eyes are entirely closed, the lips swollen and of a livid color, the face and surface of the whole body are covered with maturated pustules, from which issue purulent matter; the miserable being has the appearance of a putrid mass, and scarcely the semblance of a human form remains.”
Survivors – like Washington – carried the scars for life.
The BBC’s Richard Hollingham noted that 400,000 people in 18th century Europe died of it every year and, in 1721, an outbreak in Boston took 8 percent of the population.
The one good thing about it was, if you got it once and lived, you probably wouldn’t get it once again (well, I suppose if you got it once and died, you probably wouldn’t get it again either). But catching it just to get it over with was a pretty dicey game.
Still, they tried a form of it learned from China. Doctors and even ministers (Cotton Mather was one) took dried scabs or fresh pus from victims, lanced open a wound on a healthy person, and slipped the stuff under their skin. As a rule, they developed a mild form of the smallpox — a few even died – but as a whole they came out far better than the full-blown sufferers.
Curiously enough, cows in England had their own version of smallpox – a kinder, gentler thing called cowpox that was more of an inconvenience than a killer. Milkmaids who spent a lot of time around these cows sometimes contracted the disease, developing pustules (a grossly descriptive word) on their hands but little more… and they never developed smallpox.
One farmer, Benjamin Jetsy, got an idea from this. In 1774 he scratched the pus from lesions on a cow’s udder and then got it into the skin of this wife and sons – whether he made the scratches to do this, or they already had them, I don’t know. The family may have been grossed out, but they never developed smallpox.
In 1796 a country doctor named Edward Jenner in Gloucestershire (the English never have been very good at naming places, aside from ‘London’) began hearing stories about the efficacy of the cowpox. He remembered his own childhood inoculation with smallpox and the misery that ensued and so he began to come up with an idea for an experiment. Rats were plentiful of course but he bypassed them when he chose a subject. He chose a child.
By legend he scraped some cowpox pus from the hand of a milkmaid named Sarah Nelms and injected into both arms 8-year-old named James Phipps. James got a little bit sick and Jenner waited for him to recover a bit, and then he took some smallpox fluid, scraped up some of the boy’s skin and put it in him. He did not develop the disease. He injected him a few more times to see if he would catch it and he did not. I imagine the kid’s life was miserable. So was Sarah’s cow that she caught cow pox from. The beast’s skin now hangs in the library at St. George’s Medical School.
Jenner had proven his case. It was the first full knowledge of using a milder form of disease to prevent a harsher form – and traditionally, that is what vaccinations have been since that time, with the exception of the new COVID one.
“Vaccine” actually comes Vaccinia, which is Latin for cowpox. And “Vaccinia” is such a pretty word that you could name your daughter that, if it weren’t for the fact that some day, she would find out what it means.
Although he could not have known the real science behind his discovery, Jenner is known as the father of immunology and the creator of the first true vaccine.
Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-229-4977.