The origins of vaccination

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2022-05-14 16:00:10

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Edward Jenner (1749–1823), a physician from Gloucestershire in England, is widely regarded as the ‘father of vaccination’ (Milestone 2). However, the origins of vaccination lie further back in time and also further afield. In fact, at the time Jenner reported his famous story about inoculating young James Phipps with cowpox and then demonstrating immunity to smallpox, the procedure of ‘variolation’ (referred to then as ‘inoculation’), by which pus is taken from a smallpox blister and introduced into a scratch in the skin of an uninfected person to confer protection, was already well established.

Variolation had been popularized in Europe by the writer and poet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, best known for her ‘letters from the Ottoman Empire’. As wife of the British ambassador to Turkey, she had first witnessed variolation in Constantinople in 1717, which she mentioned in her famous ‘letter to a friend’. The following year, her son was variolated in Turkey, and her daughter received variolation in England in 1721. The procedure was initially met with much resistance — so much so that the first experimental variolation in England (including subsequent smallpox challenge) was carried out on condemned prisoners, who were promised freedom if they survived (they did). Nevertheless, the procedure was not without danger and subsequent prominent English variolators devised different techniques (often kept secret) to improve variolation, before it was replaced by the much safer cowpox ‘vaccination’ as described by Jenner.

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