The history of vaccinations

Vaccines offer a defence against preventable and contagious diseases that could otherwise be deadly. The concept of a vaccination has been around far longer than the first vaccine, which is commonly known as Edward Jenner’s use of material from cowpox pustules to provide protection against smallpox. Instead, vaccinations steep into history along with the lengthy history of infectious diseases in humans.

Early Chinese Inoculations
Dating back to several accounts from the 1500’s, there were descriptions of smallpox inoculations being practised in China and India. Some accounts go back as early as 200BC. It is noted that in the late 1600’s, Emperor K’ang Hsi – who himself was a childhood survivor of smallpox – had his children inoculated through a method involving ground up smallpox scabs being blown into their nostrils. It may also have been the case that it was practised by scratching matter from a smallpox sore into the skin.

Variolation in Turkey
In 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montague had her son variolated. Variolation was the method of inoculation first used to immunize individuals against smallpox (variola) with material taken from a patient or a recently variolated individual, in the hope that a mild but protective infection would result. This would, in theory, immunise the patient receiving it, by exposing them to the ailment just enough to develop an immunity to it. She later received criticism for being an advocate for variolation, as, at times the results were fatal – with 2-3% of people receiving the treatment dying of smallpox. This was, however, in comparison to the 20-30% death rate of those who passed on after contracting smallpox naturally. The practice began to spread shortly after its ability to protect against smallpox became apparent. The method that she describes in 1717 to a friend was as follows:

“…I am going to tell you a thing that I am sure will make you wish yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of ingrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women who make it their business to perform the operation every autumn…. The old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of smallpox, and asks what veins you please to have opened…. She immediately rips open that you offer her with a large needle … and puts into the vein as much venom as can lie upon the head of her needle…. Every year thousands undergo this operation…. There is no example of anyone that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of the experiment…. I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England; and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind.”

— Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M–y W–y M–e: Written During her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa. . . , vol. 1 (Aix: Anthony Henricy, 1796), pp. 167-69; letter 36, to Mrs. S. C. from Adrianople, n.d.

In 1796, Edward Jenner’s inoculation innovations to boost immunity continued to become more and more successful. Over the following 200 years, his methodology underwent medical and technological changes – resulting in the eradication of smallpox.

Success with rabies
In the 1880’s, Louis Pasteur announced to the French Academy of Sciences that he had successfully protected dogs from fatal rabies by use of his attenuated rabies vaccine. This later on developed into Pasteur’s successful repetition of this on a shepherd who had been bitten by a rabid dog in 1885. This was followed by boys from Neward, New Jersey, being sent to France on an ocean liner for this treatment by Pasteur. In 1886, the boys returned home healthy, after receiving the new rabies vaccine. This feat of science was made possible by the long incubation period of the rabies virus – which lent itself to the time needed to travel the long distance for the post-exposure vaccination. This was followed by the development of antitoxins and vaccinations against diphtheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, and tuberculosis taking place through the 1930s.
Vaccination cornerstones
The middle of the 20th century was a busy time in the spheres of vaccination research and development. As the ability to grow viruses in laboratories took off, rapid discoveries and innovations took place, such as the creation of vaccines for polio. Researchers then began to focus on common childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps, and rubella – with the vaccines developed for these diseases reducing the burden of such diseases greatly.

Modern-day vaccines
Advances continue to be made in the arenas of inoculation and vaccinations. Technological innovation pushes vaccine research forward – with recombinant DNA technology and new delivery techniques opening up possibilities that were not available before.


Science History