Famous Figures in the History of Vaccination
People have been trying to immunize themselves for thousands of years, especially against smallpox. Historians believe that as long ago as 200 BC people in China and India were aware of the benefits of immunization, using methods such as powdered scabs from sufferers to transfer the disease in small quantities. In 1718, more than half a century before the smallpox vaccine was invented, a British aristocrat, Lady Montagu, wife of the British Ambassador in Istanbul, noticed that the locals inoculated themselves against smallpox by using fluids from people who had very mild cases of the disease. Such was her conviction that this was the right thing to do she had her own children immunized in the same way, successfully. There are other recorded cases of individuals trying such methods of immunization in the 1770s and 1780s in both England and Germany.
Perhaps the most famous figure in the history of vaccinations is Edward Jenner, an English doctor who discovered that people could be immunized against smallpox by being vaccinated with a small amount of a disease called cowpox, which affected cows.
Edward Jenner was born in Gloucestershire, England, in 1749. He trained as a doctor in London before returning to his local town to practise medicine. In 1796 he successfully demonstrated his theory about cowpox vaccinations being a way to protect people from the often deadly smallpox virus when he immunized an eight-year-old boy called James Phipps. His theory was based on the fact that farmers and farmhands who worked with cows and contracted cowpox (a mild disease) from them seemed immune to smallpox.
The Royal Society rejected his findings as being too shocking but Jenner was not put off. He carried out more experiments, including the vaccination of his own baby boy. At first Jenner was not taken seriously. The fact that vaccination (from the Latin ‘vacca’ meaning ‘cow’) meant that pus from a sick farm animal was introduced into the human body was deemed at best disgusting, at worst sacrilegious. Nevertheless, after a while the undeniable benefits of vaccination became so apparent that Jenner’s theory won acclaim and he became famous for his discovery. He continued to carry out research until his death in 1823.
Another famous name in the history of vaccination is Louis Pasteur, a French biologist and chemist who proved that diseases were caused by germs. Born in 1822, Pasteur studied in Paris before becoming Professor of Chemistry at Lille University in 1854. Part of his job was to discover why wine sometimes turns sour. He proved that tiny organisms such as bacteria were to blame. He also discovered that the same applies to milk (and went on to develop the process we now call pasteurization.) In the 1860s Pasteur returned to Paris to study why silkworms in the silk industry were dying off. It was his research on this topic that led him to develop the theory that germs cause disease. (He also saved the French silk industry in the process!) Like Jenner, whose work he respected, his ideas met with ridicule at first: no one believed that something as small as a germ could kill something as big as a human being. But Pasteur did not give up. He went on investigate the causes of anthrax, cholera, TB and smallpox, and to research how to vaccinate against them. He is particularly well-known in the field of vaccines against rabies and was the first to administer a rabies vaccination (to a child who had been bitten by a rabid dog). By his death in 1895 he was recognised as an important historical figure and given a state funeral.
See also: Vaccinations should never be obligatory
Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.
1. People have been trying to immunize themselves for thousands of years, __________ against smallpox.
2. In 1718 a British aristocrat, Lady Montagu, wife of the British Ambassador in Istanbul, __________ that the locals inoculated themselves against smallpox.
3. Perhaps the most famous figure in the history of vaccinations is Edward __________.
4. The Royal Society rejected his findings as being too shocking but Jenner was not put off. He __________ out more experiments, including the vaccination of his own baby boy.
5. Part of Pasteur’s job was to discover why wine sometimes __________ sour.
6. In the 1860s Pasteur returned to Paris to study why silkworms in the silk __________ were dying off.
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