January 21, 2010

Smallpox vaccine introduced – 1799

Edward Jenner should be a household name! He is sometimes called the “Fat
her of Immunology” and is credited with saving more lives than anyone else in the history of the world.

This British scientist noticed that milkmaids rarely got the dreaded disease smallpox, although 60% of the population caught the disease and 20% died from it.

(Yes, you got that right: 1 out of every 5 people died from smallpox back then. And 1 out of every 3 people who caught the disease died from it. Crazy, huh?)

He further noticed that milkmaids caught cowpox, a much less virulent disease, at a much
higher rate than the general population (since it is a disease caught from contact with an infected cow). Jenner speculated that cowpox gives immunity to smallpox.

Jenner was no
t the first to have thought of this connection between cowpox and smallpox. Early forms of vaccination were practiced in ancient China as early as 200 B.C., and people in India and Turkey developed early vaccination practices as well. At least six people in Britain and Germany had privately arranged to be infected with cowpox, and to infect their families, hoping for (and achieving) immunity to smallpox. Ronald Hopkins states: "Jenner's unique contribution was not that he inoculated a few persons with cowpox, but that he then proved they were immune to smallpox. Moreover, he demonstrated that the protective cowpox could be effectively inoculated from person to person, not just directly from cattle. In addition he tested his theory on a series of 23 subjects. This aspect of his research method increased the validity of his evidence.”

Jenner went on to present his work to the Royal Society (a group of scientists that reviews new findings) and to further study and promote vaccination.

Jenner's legacy is not just the erad
ication of smallpox (which is wonderful enough!), but also the diminishing of many other diseases such as whooping cough, polio, tetanus, measles, and chicken pox.

Sobering Statistics

To see what a horrifying thing smallpox used to be, compute
the number of people in your life who would have had it and would have died from it if scientists hadn't created the vaccination. Use the percentages given: 60% of the population got smallpox, and 20% of the population died from it.

In order to do this task, use a calculator (or paper-and-pencil, or just mental math!) to find 60%, and then 20%, of...
  • your family
  • your class
  • your school
  • your church
  • your town
  • your state
  • your country
Also on this day...
It's Errol Barrow Day in Barbados

Today the pe
ople of Barbados honor their first prime minister, who helped win independence from Britain.

Barbados is a small Caribbean island that is close to South America and part of the “border” between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. That is, if chunks of water had borders, which they almost never do!

What's your IQ?
(Your Island Quotient, that is...)

Can you figure out which ocean or sea each group of islands below is in?

Hawaii, Tahiti, Galapagos
Jamaica, Cayman, Puerto Rico
Azores, Iceland, Bermuda
Cyprus, Sicily, Crete
Sri Lanka, Phi Phi, Penang

Your choices are:

  • Atlantic Ocean
  • Indian Ocean
  • Pacific Ocean
  • Caribbean Sea
  • Mediterranean Sea

ANSWERS: 1. Pacific Ocean 2. Caribbean Sea 3. Atlantic Ocean 4. Mediterranean Sea 5. Indian Ocean


  1. In the documentary 'John Adams', Abigail Adams has herself and her children inoculated with small pox. This was a little before the Declaration of Independence, so probably the early 1770's.

    So, as you say, people just didn't have proof that it worked.

    And of course, they didn't have our safe and easy vaccines. I don't know if that documentary is accurate, but if so, you do not want to know how inoculations were done back then.

  2. "...you do not want to know how inoculations were done back then."

    No, probably not! [delicate shudder]