Looking down at my left shoulder, I can still see the faint scar from the Smallpox inoculation I received as a child. Smallpox was once a big killer with one in three people catching the disease dying from it. It was also the first disease against which people were inoculated. Yet the Smallpox inoculation is no longer given. Why? Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1979 by the World Health Organisation and we no longer need to inoculate people for it.
The story of vaccination goes back to 1796. A physician named Edward Jenner had heard of a farmer named Benjamin Jesty who had given himself, his wife, and their two children, cowpox as a defence against smallpox. It was also generally known that milkmaids generally did not get smallpox. On the 14th May 1796, Jenner conducted an experiment. He scratched the arm of James Phipps, the son of his gardener, with cowpox from a blister on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes. Phipps became feverish, but recovered fully. Jenner then scratched Phipps’s arm with smallpox. Phipps did not develop smallpox. Jenner continued his tests on other subjects. He named his technique vaccination, from the latin ‘vacca’, for cow.
Prior to this, people had attempted to gain immunity to smallpox using a technique called variolation. In this technique, smallpox was introduced into the body through various means such as the inhalation of ground up smallpox pustules, or scratching the arm of a subject with pus from a smallpox blister. It was a dangerous method as it could lead to the patient developing smallpox and dying. The success of vaccination and the dangers of variolation led the British to ban variolation, and provide free vaccination to all, in 1840.
Jenner received numerous honours and awards for his work. In 1821, he became Physician Extraordinary to King George IV, a considerable honour. He founded the Jennerian Institution, which was renamed the National Vaccination Establishment in 1808. His greatest achievement, however, is the fact that we no longer have to vaccinate against smallpox. It is a fitting tribute to him.