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Tips for Students: The Amazing History of Vaccines

Highlights from Expert Series

The following article shares highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and their parents.

Vaccines are one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in human history.  They save millions of lives every year and can help protect us from many diseases.  In this talk, we explored the origins and evolution of this world-changing invention.

The first vaccines weren’t invented in a lab.  Their earliest forms date back centuries before modern medicine.  One virus is key to the invention of vaccines: the smallpox (variola) virus, which killed up to one in three people who caught it and left distinctive, permanent “pockmark” scars on most survivors.  People noticed these pockmarked survivors never caught smallpox again.  But was it possible to obtain this immunity without suffering the full horror of the virus?

By the 16th century, practitioners in China had invented “variolation”, inserting dried, powdered smallpox scabs in a patient’s nose to give them (hopefully mild) smallpox, followed by immunity.  In 1717 in the Ottoman Empire, English traveler and smallpox survivor Lady Mary Wortley Montagu observed another folk practice to prevent smallpox, known as “engrafting” or “inoculation”. Ottoman women routinely “inoculated” children who had not had smallpox, using a needle to put fresh smallpox pus into scratches in their arms and legs to produce more reliably mild disease and lifelong immunity.  In colonial Massachusetts, an enslaved man named Onesimus educated surprised Bostonians about the same practice in his birth country (present-day Libya).  Bold surgeons like Charles Maitland in England and Zabdiel Boylston in Boston began inoculating patients against smallpox, sparking huge controversy.

In 1796, English physician Edward Jenner adapted the Ottoman method, inoculating a patient with mild cowpox (vaccinia) virus instead of smallpox to produce the same immunity with much less risk.  This new practice was named “vaccination”.  Soon, many thousands were being safely vaccinated against smallpox.

During the 19th century and into the 20th, scientists began using new understanding of biology and chemistry to develop vaccines against other deadly diseases, including polio, diphtheria, tetanus and tuberculosis.  Diseases that once terrified the world became half-forgotten names in history books.  Countries began using vaccines to protect not only individuals, but the health of the public as a whole.  Thanks to a global effort, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been eradicated worldwide in 1980, saving at least 200 million lives so far.

Highlights from This Expert Series Event

  • Many smallpox inoculation pioneers were themselves smallpox survivors. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu almost died of smallpox.  Her toddler daughter was the first known person inoculated in western Europe.  Lady Mary’s bold advocacy inspired many others to inoculate.
  • The world’s first scientific trial for inoculation safety took place at Newgate Prison in London in 1721, using convicts as volunteers. Two of them were still teenagers. When they survived, they were freed, with a pardon from the king himself.  Soon, even the royal family inoculated their children.
  • Zabdiel Boylston began inoculating people to save lives during a smallpox epidemic in Boston, using the expertise of Onesimus and other enslaved people. Some Bostonians threatened the doctor and even threw a bomb through his window.  But within half a century, George Washington was ordering new recruits to the revolutionary army to be inoculated.
  • Benjamin Franklin chose not to inoculate his beloved son. After the little boy died of smallpox, Franklin became a courageous advocate of inoculation, urging other parents not to make the same tragic mistake.
  • In France, inoculation became so fashionable, aristocratic ladies wore special headgear to show off that they’d been inoculated. Today, people usually stick with stickers!
  • The world’s first free vaccine clinic was in an ornamental hut in Edward Jenner’s yard.
  • Jonas Salk invented a vaccine which helped protect tens of millions of children from polio, which can cause death or paralysis. Dr. Salk chose not to patent and profit from his invention so as many kids as possible would be able to access the vaccine.
  • Rock star Elvis got the polio vaccine on TV to inspire more teenagers to get vaccinated. Thanks to vaccines, polio has been eradicated in the US since 1979.
  • The history of vaccines illustrates how sometimes, complex scientific discoveries begin with a simple act of observation.
  • Vaccine history also reminds us that not every great scientific discovery comes from a lone genius – sometimes, the most important breakthroughs rely on people learning from each other and keeping an open mind.

Things Students Can Do to Explore this Topic Further

If you enjoyed the history of vaccines, you’ll probably love exploring the mind-blowing, tragic, heroic – and sometimes gross–history of medicine more broadly.  History of Science museums are a great place to start, in person or online.  The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia specializes in the history of medicine, with online articles, classes and videos to explore.   The Wellcome Collection in London is another terrific museum about the history of medicine, with rich online resources and photos of their fascinating collection.

Students might also enjoy picking another scientific topic that intrigues them and tracing its history.  For example, an aspiring astronaut might be fascinated to explore the dramatic, millennia-old history of astronomy.  Whether the field is medicine, geology or archaeology, understanding how it took shape is a great way to explore key ideas and debates, and to see how curiosity can transform the world.

You won’t run out of topics to explore!  History of Science courses are offered at many colleges – and you can even earn a doctorate in it.

Additional Resources

Like with most subjects, when you are exploring the history of vaccines, it’s important to make sure you are using reliable sources like universities, museums, peer-reviewed journals and trusted newspapers.  Here are some good places to start:

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia maintains a great, student-friendly website about the history of vaccines, complete with a timeline, articles and activities, and resources for parents and educators: https://www.historyofvaccines.org

If you are curious about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s famous letters from the Ottoman Empire, including the one about smallpox, you can read the full text here. Search “Small-pox” to find her letter about inoculation. https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/17520/pg17520-images.html   Here’s a nice short article about Lady Mary in Time magazine: https://time.com/5542895/mary-montagu-smallpox/

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has created a resource to help students learn about Onesmius: https://learninglab.si.edu/collections/onesimus-and-the-1721-smallpox-outbreak-in-boston/Ya3HENakRPRLW37a  This article from Harvard offers more academic detail: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/special-edition-on-infectious-disease/2014/the-fight-over-inoculation-during-the-1721-boston-smallpox-epidemic/

This academic article has lots of information about Edward Jenner and vaccination: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1200696/ For a fun look at

On Thomas Jefferson’s role in early vaccination in America: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/thomas-jefferson-conducted-early-smallpox-vaccine-trials-180954146/

For lots of trustworthy information about vaccines in general and the science behind them, I recommend the World Health Organization (WHO): https://www.who.int/health-topics/vaccines-and-immunization#tab=tab_1

There were great questions about what vaccines are currently available and exciting new “pipeline vaccines” which are being created and tested.  You can find more information about both at this WHO site: https://www.who.int/teams/immunization-vaccines-and-biologicals/diseases

On smallpox generally, one great book (high school/college level) is Donald R. Hopkins’ The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History (University of Chicago Press, 2002).  Students curious about public health and the WHO smallpox eradication campaign may be curious to read the account of one of the doctors behind it, Dr. William Foege’s House on Fire: The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox (University of California Press, 2011).

A few students had great questions about mRNA vaccines.  One good resource is the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mrna.html   NPR also hosted a half-hour radio program discussing the science behind mRNA vaccines against COVID-19: https://www.npr.org/2020/11/23/938003401/explaining-the-science-behind-an-mrna-vaccine-for-covid-19  There’s also a nice short article and video from New Scientist magazine: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2253982-how-do-mrna-coronavirus-vaccines-work-science-with-sam-explains/

Authored by: August Siena Thomas, M.A.
Bio: Currently based in Scotland, August Thomas is the author of the spy novel Liar’s Candle. A former Fulbright Scholar to Turkey, she has Master’s degrees from the University of Edinburgh and Bogazici University in Istanbul, where she studied history. She is also a Young Scholar alumna and was a Davidson Fellows Scholarship recipient.

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