In the late 18th century, smallpox was rampant, spreading like wildfire through cities and the countryside. Historians estimate that 80% of children and up to 60% of adults that were infected with smallpox died. As the disease devastated humans worldwide, the future looked bleak.
219 years ago, a man made an extraordinary discovery that forever changed the world. Edward Jenner, an English physician and scientist, introduced a new technique and innovative treatment that later became known as the world’s first vaccine.
Jenner’s revolutionary discovery came through rather ordinary circumstances: he observed that milkmaids were generally immune to smallpox. Upon further consideration, he hypothesized that the pus in the blisters that milkmaids received from their mild cases of cowpox protected them from smallpox.
In 1796, Jenner put his theory to the test. He inoculated his gardener’s eight-year-old son, James Phipps. He scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of a milkmaid who had caught cowpox and injected Phipps with the pus. Phipps produced a fever and some uneasiness, but not the full infection. Several days later, Jenner exposed Phipps to smallpox. No disease followed and Phipps was found to be immune.
A year later, Jenner presented his findings to the Royal Society and was told that his ideas were too radical and that he needed more proof. Undeterred, Jenner experimented on several additional children, including his 11-month-old son. After multiple delays, the medical establishment finally accepted and published his results in 1798. As a tribute to the milkmaids and cows, Jenner named his discovery “vaccines,” stemming from the Latin word for cow, 'vacca'.
By 1840, the British government banned the use of smallpox to induce immunity and provided vaccinations using cowpox, free of charge. Since Jenner’s discovery, scientists have followed his model to develop new vaccines to fight numerous deadly diseases, including polio, whooping cough, measles, tetanus, yellow fever, typhus, hepatitis B, and many others.
As a result of Jenner’s work, smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979, after having killed an estimated 300 to 500 million people in the 20th century alone. Today, Jenner is revered. However, he was not always the recipient of such accolades. At the time of his discovery, Jenner was ridiculed; critics claimed it was repulsive to inject someone with material from a diseased animal. Eventually, the advantages of vaccination overshadowed his critics.
Jenner’s impact extends beyond smallpox. As the father of vaccines, Jenner is credited with saving more lives than any other human. Vaccination is the most effective method of preventing infectious diseases, and today, vaccines are able to prevent or contribute to the prevention and control of 25 infections.