Health Science & Technology

How was Vaccination Discovered?

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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Edward Jenner discovered that humans can be protected from disease by injecting them with mild form of the very disease they are trying to avoid, says Prof. Ashoka. An exclusive for Different Truths.

Year of Discovery: 1798

What is it? Humans can be protected from disease by injecting them with mild form of the very disease they are trying to avoid.

Who Discovered it?

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Edward Jenner.

Why is this one of the 100 Greatest Discoveries?

Have you had smallpox? Polio? Typhoid? Probably not.

Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Plague killed nearly half of the population of Europe.

However, such infectious diseases used to plague humankind. The word plague comes from one of these killer diseases – the Bubonic Plague. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Plague killed nearly half of the population of Europe.

Smallpox killed over 100,000 people a year for a century and left millions horribly scarred and disfigured. The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed 25 million worldwide. Polio killed thousands in the early twentieth century and left millions paralysed.

Vaccinations have saved millions of lives and have prevented unimaginable amounts of misery and suffering. American children are now regularly vaccinated for as many as 15 diseases.

One simple discovery not only stopped the spread of each of these diseases, it virtually eradicated them. That discovery was vaccinations. Vaccinations have saved millions of lives and have prevented unimaginable amounts of misery and suffering. American children are now regularly vaccinated for as many as 15 diseases.

How were Vaccinations Discovered?

Twenty-four-year-old Lady Mary Worley Montagu, a well-known English poet, travelled to Turkey with her husband, in 1712, when he became the British ambassador. Lady Mary noticed that native populations in Turkey didn’t suffer from smallpox, the dread disease that had left her scarred and pockmarked and that killed tens of thousands in England each year.

An old woman arrived carrying a nutshell full of infected liquid. She would open one of the volunteer’s veins with a needle dipped in the liquid as the family sang and chanted.

She soon learned that elderly tribal women performed what was called “engrafting.” Previous British travelers had dismissed the practice as a meaningless tribal ritual. Lady Marry suspected that this annual event held the secret to their immunity from smallpox. An old woman arrived carrying a nutshell full of infected liquid. She would open one of the volunteer’s veins with a needle dipped in the liquid as the family sang and chanted. The infected person stayed in bed for two-three days with a mild fever and a slight rash. He or she was then as well as before, never getting a serious case of smallpox. Mary wondered if English populations could be protected by ingrafting. `

Upon her return to England in 1713, Lady Mary lectured about the potential of ingrafting. She was dismissed as an untrained and ‘silly’ woman. In early 1714 Caroline, Princess of Wales, heard one of Lady Mary’s talks and approved Lady Mary’s ingrafting of convicts and orphans.

Lady Mary collected the puss from smallpox blisters of sick patients and injected small amounts of the deadly liquid into her test subjects. The death rate of those she inoculated was less than one-third that of the general public.

Lady Mary collected the puss from smallpox blisters of sick patients and injected small amounts of the deadly liquid into her test subjects. The death rate of those she inoculated was less than one-third that of the general public and five times as many of her subjects got mild, non-scarring cases.

However, there was a problem with ingrafting. Inoculation with live smallpox viruses were dangerous. Some patients died from the injections that were supposed to protect them.

Jenner noticed that milkmaids almost never got smallpox. However, virtually all milkmaids did get cowpox a disease that caused mild blistering on their hands.

Enter Edward Jenner a young English surgeon, in 1794. Living in a rural community, Jenner noticed that milkmaids almost never got smallpox. However, virtually all milkmaids did get cowpox a disease that caused mild blistering on their hands. Jenner theorised that cowpox must be in the same family as smallpox and that getting mild cowpox was like ingrafting and made a person immune to the deadly smallpox.

He tested his theory by injecting 20 children with liquid taken from the blisters of a milkmaid with cowpox. Each infected child got cowpox. Painful blisters formed on their hands and arms, lasting several days.

Two month later, Jenner injected live smallpox into each of his test children. If Jenner’s theory was wrong, many of these children would die. However, none of his test children showed any sign of smallpox.

Jenner invented the word “vaccination” to describe his process when he announced his results, in 1798.

Jenner invented the word “vaccination” to describe his process when he announced his results, in 1798. Vacca is the Latin word for cow; vaccinia is Latin for cowpox.

Fun Facts

The World Health Organisation declared smallpox eradicated in 1979 and President George H Bush said that since then authorities have not detected a single natural case of the disease in the world.

Photos from the Internet


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