Vaccines are one of the most revolutionary medicines humans have created. They help to protect one from diseases that could otherwise be life-threatening. But where did they originate, and how was the first vaccine made?
To analyze the first-ever vaccine, we look at the disease it prevented, smallpox. Smallpox is a virus part of the variola family. Its initial symptoms include fevers, body aches, and occasionally vomiting. Then a person starts to develop a rash first in their mouth then spreads and covers the whole body. In this stage, a person is the most contagious. The rashes may start to pulse and feel firm to the touch. Usually, after about three weeks, the scabs begin to fall off. Scaring in smallpox, survivors was common; some survivors even went blind because of it. It is highly contagious and spreads in two ways. One way is through the sneeze/cough droplets of the infected individuals encountering another person. The second and more common way was through objects such as bedding or clothing items. The scabs on the patient's body still contain the variola virus so it can contaminate things such as clothes, sheets, blankets, etc.
Smallpox is estimated to have appeared in 10,000 BC, but the origin of the disease is unknown. It mostly likely spread from settlements in northeastern Africa and got to India through Egyptian merchants. Mummies from ancient Egyptian Dynasties had skin lesions that resembled those of smallpox. Smallpox also contributed to Rome's decline as it killed seven million people, known as the plague of Antonine. It reached Europe between the 1400-1600s and had devastating effects. By the 1700s, 400,000 people died yearly because of smallpox, and about a third went blind. In some cases, the fatality rate varied from 20-60% and was even higher for infants. Something had to be done, and early attempts at vaccines were made.
At that time it was known that if you got smallpox once, you would not get it again so early methods of introducing an uninfected individual with smallpox were developed. Fluid taken from the inside of the rashes of an infected person was then injected into the arms and legs of the un-infected person. This method is known as variolation. The method, however, could have been better, and about 2-3% would die because of it. There was also the risk of the fluid spreading through the body and becoming contagious. Since injecting the liquid with a sharp object was not exactly sterile, it ran the risk of other bloodborne diseases being transmitted to the person. It was practiced globally; China, Africa, and India all used the method of variolation to protect others from smallpox. It reached Europe in the 1700s, and physicians wasted no time to start it on a big scale. This method was not limited to the upper class and was even given to the common folk. Variolation reached America (back then, still British colonies) in 1721 and was very popular. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic swept the streets of Boston, and two men, Reverand Cotton Mather, and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, started a variolation program but had many skeptics who did not believe in the method. Mather and Boylston had to publish a statistic comparing mortality rates of people who got the disease naturally versus through variolation. Although variolation was effective, it was not without its flaws. There was a chance of the virus becoming a severe infection and could lead to death, not to mention the many skeptics of the method. It was not until 1796 that Edward Jenner discovered the very first vaccine.
Edward Anthony Jenner was born in Berkley, England, on May 17, 1749. He always loved science, and at 13, he apprenticed for the country surgeon and apothecary. As an apprentice, he met a dairymaid who said, " I shall never have smallpox, for I have had cowpox." Cowpox is a disease affecting mainly rodents but also infects cows. Infected cows develop bumps on their udders, and direct contact spreads the disease to humans. It was a common belief that dairymaids were immune to smallpox, but the reason was unknown. Jenner was intrigued by this and concluded that cowpox had to protect someone from smallpox.
On top of that, cowpox could be transferred from person to person, meaning a way of vaccinating the masses was possible. In May of 1796, Jenner Young, a dairymaid named Sarah Nelms, had cowpox lesions on her hands. Jenner took the matter from the lesions and transported them to an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps. The boy's initial symptoms were a milk fever and discomfort in the armpits. About nine days later, he had lost his appetite and felt cold, but the very next day, he felt much better. In July of the same year, he exposed the boy to matter from smallpox, but no disease developed. Jenner's original communication to the Royal Society was rejected in 1797. Still, after adding a couple more cases to his study, he released a book titled An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae. Jenner often gave his vaccine to any of his peers who requested it, even though he had a short supply. Jenner went to London to search for any potential volunteers for vaccination but found none. However, vaccination was widespread among others, particularly a surgeon named Henry Cline, who had received the vaccine from Jenner. Other doctors began to support his work, and by 1800, it reached most European countries. Jenner remained humble and did not try to profit from the vaccine. He spent most of his time giving the vaccine to the poor for free, and on January 26, 1823, he passed away from a stroke and was buried near Berkley church.
Although most vaccines presently contain very weak or dead germs, the idea of using cowpox to protect against smallpox laid the foundation for modern vaccines as we know it. Current smallpox vaccines contain a live version of the vaccine virus, which is similar to smallpox, but is weaker. Vaccines help protect us from numerous of the most devastating diseases, all starting from a simple cow.