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The birth of vaccines

And thus vaccines were born!

1796: Edward Jenner inoculates a boy with cowpox. After the lad recovers from the infection, Jenner inoculates him with smallpox, but the boy remains healthy. Vaccination is born.

Before Jenner, smallpox was a massive scourge and a leading cause of death, especially among children. Those whom it didn’t kill it disfigured with pockmarked faces.

Some European families adopted the Turkish practice of inoculating their children with low doses of smallpox in hopes of building up their immunity to the disease. This was popularized in England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who had her own child inoculated. The Royal family, freshly arrived from the Kingdom of Hanover in Germany, inoculated two of the Princess of Wales’ children in 1723 to secure the succession. (Ironically, the Hanovers had come to the throne of Great Britain because so many Stuart and Orange heirs had succumbed to smallpox.) But the process was risky.

Jenner had heard the folk wisdom that milkmaids and others who contracted the mild and harmless cowpox through their proximity to cattle did not fall victim to the deadly smallpox. He inoculated his year-and-a-half-old son in 1789 with swine pox (a related pig disease) and then smallpox. The boy did not contract smallpox.

The dramatic 1796 experiment used fluid taken from a cowpox sore on milkmaid Sarah Nelmes. The experimental subject was 8-year-old James Phipps, who did not get smallpox despite Jenner’s repeated attempts to infect him starting July 1. Ethicists debate whether such an experiment would be at all possible today.

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