And the answer: Edward Jenner.
Variolation, the process of infecting people with small amounts of smallpox to prevent severe illness, can be traced as far back as 1000 BCE. However, it was Edward Jenner in 1796 who invented the first true vaccine, after noticing that cowpox exposure provided protection from smallpox. In 1798, Jenner developed the first smallpox vaccine. Thanks to his discovery, smallpox was eradicated from the globe by 1979, less than two centuries later.
Immunization is an ancient practice with great modern day significance. Although we’re no longer drinking snake venom to protect ourselves against snake bites as Buddhist monks once did, experimentation that creates life-saving vaccines continues to protect our lives against modern illnesses. Around 1900, experiments by Louis Pasteur lead to the creation of a cholera vaccine, as well as an anthrax vaccine in humans. As time passed, scientists continued to expand upon and improve the work of earlier vaccines, leading to methods such as the viral tissue culture developed from 1950-1985. This method led to the advent of the polio vaccine—an invention which led to the near-complete eradication of the disease altogether. Thanks to inventor Jonas Salk’s refusal to patent the vaccine, it was able to proliferate the world market at a great speed.
Vaccines—or lack thereof—have contributed to the development of major world events. In 1776, for example, around half of the 10,000 Continental Army soldiers in Quebec came down with smallpox. As a result, the unit was forced to retreat, ceding the land to the British and even potentially contributing to Canada’s status as a separate nation today. This immense defeat for George Washington also contributed to his choice to mandate vaccinations for the army in 1777.
Did you know?
Thanks to the work of immunologists, vaccines have become an easily accessible and safe way to protect ourselves and our loved ones from illness. This month marks National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM), an observance meant to highlight the importance of vaccines while offering specialized information on how you can protect yourself. Learn more about NIAM here.