How Cowpox was Used to Fight Smallpox

Since its first appearance from about 10,000 years ago, smallpox has devastated the human population by killing billions of people. An estimated 300-500 million people died in the 20th century alone; however, this number would have been much higher if not for the work of Edward Jenner. Known as the Father of Immunology, Jenner discovered and performed the first recorded vaccination in history.

To explain Jenner’s thought process, we must first explore the history of immunization. Contrary to popular belief, Jenner was not the first to discover that exposing someone to a disease will grant an immunity. Since 430 BC, people noticed that survivors of smallpox were immune to any later infections. Thus variolation, exposing a patient with the smallpox pustules, became a popular way for people to obtain an immunity to the deadly disease. Variolation eventually made its way to Europe in the 18th century but conservative physicians did not acknowledge the practice since they thought the process was crazy. And they were right to think that; since variolation directly infects the patient with smallpox, there was still a chance for the patient to never recover and die. Although the chances were lower than if the disease was contracted naturally, English physicians did not want to take the risk or just flat out didn’t believe that variolation worked.

At the age of 13, Edward Jenner apparently heard a dairymaid say “I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox. I shall never have an ugly pockmarked face,” which became the basis for his research. Cowpox and smallpox belonged to the same family, Poxviridae, and have similar mechanisms, but the main hosts of cowpox were cows, as the name implies. Many maids developed pustules from working with infected cows but seldom did people with cowpox die. Once he became a physician, Jenner explored the common belief that dairymaids who had cowpox never got smallpox. He began his experiment by scraping off fresh pustules off a dairymaid’s hand and then, inoculated the cowpox into James Phipps, his Gardner’s son. Once the initial fever and symptoms went away, Jenner, unethically in today’s standards, inoculated poor little 8-year-old James Phipps with smallpox. At this point, there were two outcomes: little James Phipps could be infected with smallpox and could possibly die, or he could be immune to the deadly virus; thankfully the latter happened. Jenner thus coined the term Vaccination (Vacca meaning cow) to describe the process of obtaining an immunity by injecting patients with attenuated versions of the virus (as compared to variolation where the actual smallpox virus was inoculated.) His contribution to vaccinations allowed Jenner to cement his name in history.

Unfortunately for Jenner, most of his research were rejected at the time. Even after repeating his findings, he was ridiculed and became the subject of the famous cartoon which depicted people growing cows out of their bodies. However, the public opinion on vaccines eventually began to shift as other researchers reported the same findings. By the beginning of the 19th century, vaccination was widespread across Europe. While his methods leading up to his findings was strange and arguably unethical, Jenner undoubtedly paved the way for modern vaccination of diseases.

Cartoon mocking vaccinations. People depicted with cows growing out of their bodies.






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