First Vaccine Successfully Tested in 1796

On This Day In 1796: First Vaccine Successfully Tested

On May 14 1796, Edward Jenner, an English country doctor from Gloucestershire, England, tested a smallpox vaccine.

Smallpox is thought to date back to the Egyptian Empire around the 3rd century BCE. Early written descriptions appeared in China in the 4th century CE, India in the 7th century, and Asia Minor in the 10th century. As civilizations grew and people traveled the world, the disease spread.

On average, 3/10 people who got smallpox died from it. The disease was devastating to native communities in the Americas and Australia as the Europeans brought it with them to the ‘new lands’.

Early methods of treatment were quite varied, none of which we would recognize today. Variolation, however, had been used for decades with success, so that technique is what Jenner used. He took fluid from a cowpox lesion on a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes and inoculated it into a young boy named James Phipps. Jenner had previously observed that milkmaids who had gotten cowpox did not show any symptoms of smallpox.

Months after May 14, when Jenner introduced the smallpox into Phipps, the boy did not develop smallpox. Jenner went on to be the first advocate for vaccination and pursue its scientific investigation, and although he received worldwide recognition and many honours, Jenner made no attempt to enrich himself through his discovery.

Jenner was not actually the ‘discoverer’ of using cowpox. This was a treatment widely known amongst country doctors in the dairy counties of 18th century England.

However, Jenner was the first to really study vaccination. He coined the terminology and he changed the way medicine was practiced. The term vaccination comes from the Latin word for cow, vacca, and cowpox, vaccinia. On December 9, 1979, scientists around the world declared that smallpox had been eradicated.

Today there are many different vaccinations for diseases that used to claim many lives or leave people with lifelong after effects. There are also different styles, or types of vaccinations, all with the goal of boosting our immune system so our bodies can quickly fight an illness before it gets a hold of us. A vaccine doesn’t mean we never get sick, but it means we have less serious symptoms and recover faster.

Sources and Further Reading



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