Little Bits of History

Smallpox Vaccine

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 14, 2012

Portrait of Edward Jenner (1749-1823) (oil on canvas) by Charles Meynier (1768-1832)

May 14, 1796: James Phipps is vaccinated. Smallpox is a deadly infectious disease caused by either Variola major or Variola minor. The virus is named for the Latin word for spotted, varius. The term Smallpox was used to differentiate the disease from the “great pox” or syphilis. The disease causes a rash with raised fluid-filled blisters following. V. major is the more serious type of virus and has a 30-35% mortality rate. Those who survive the disease are often left with disfiguring scars. If the virus manifests in the eye, blindness results. There can also be limb deformity and osteomyelitis, a bone disease, following infection.

It was noted that milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox. Milkmaids were often afflicted with a much milder disease call cowpox. There had been some people who were deliberately infecting their loved ones with cowpox in order to forestall their contracting the deadlier smallpox. Edward Jenner decided to try a different method of disease control. Sarah Nelmes had contracted cowpox from a cow named Blossom. Jenner took pus from Nelmes’s blisters and transferred the pus to small cuts in Phipps’s arms. The eight-year-old boy developed a fever and cowpox, but did not get seriously ill.

Six weeks later, Jenner used smallpox virus and inoculated the boy. If Phipps did not contract smallpox, Jenner would be a hero. If he did get seriously ill and possibly die, Jenner could be tried for murder. Luckily for Jenner and the world at large, Phipps did not get smallpox. The lethal disease has been around since at least 10,000 BC. During the 1700s, nearly 400,000 Europeans died yearly (and in that same time frame, five monarchs also died of the disease). It was responsible for one-third of all blindness. Between 20 and 60% of those who contracted the disease died and over 80% of children who became ill, died.

During the 20th century, smallpox caused 300-500 million deaths with 50 million cases occurring yearly. A large smallpox vaccination program was instituted by the middle of the century. In 1967, the World Health Organization estimated there were 15 million cases with 2 million deaths. With continued vaccination programs, the WHO certified the eradication of smallpox in December 1979. It is the only human infectious disease to be completely wiped out. Edward Jenner is called the “Father of Immunology” and has been credited with saving more lives than any other man.

The deviation of man from the state in which he was originally placed by nature seems to have proved to him a prolific source of diseases. – Edward Jenner

I hope that some day the practice of producing cowpox in human beings will spread over the world – when that day comes, there will be no more smallpox. – Edward Jenner

The joy I felt as the prospect before me of being the instrument destined to take away from the world one of its greatest calamities (smallpox) was so excessive that I found myself in a kind of reverie. – Edward Jenner

The smallpox was always present, filling the churchyards with corpses, tormenting with constant fears all whom it had stricken, leaving on those whose lives it spared the hideous traces of its power, turning the babe into a changeling at which the mother shuddered, and making the eyes and cheeks of the bighearted maiden objects of horror to the lover. – T.B. Macaulay

Also on this day:

Lewis and Clark – In 1804 the Expedition begins their 28 month journey.
Gerardo – In 1939, five year old Lina gave birth to a son.
Summer Olympics – In 1900, the Paris Summer Olympics began.

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2 Responses

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  1. said, on January 19, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    Where did the “I hope that some day the practice of producing cowpox in human beings will spread over the world – when that day comes, there will be no more smallpox. – Edward Jenner” quote come from? I need a good source for it and I can’t find it anywhere…

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