Innovations Saving Lives

Do you know how vaccines work to keep you healthy?


Many scientists across countries and time have worked collaboratively to understand how germs spread and how to stop them. While early inoculations were developed centuries before, they became widespread throughout the eighteenth century and curved smallpox epidemics. Vaccines have come to nearly eliminate many childhood diseases and increase lifespans globally. The development of the recent COVID-19 vaccines was built on the backs of countless researchers and scientists. 

Early Chinese Inoculations

While it is difficult to know for sure when inoculations were first discovered, they were used in China in the first millennium. People looking for protection disease took scabs from smallpox patients and blew them up their nostril. Later, these scabs were scratched under the skin. This method helped the body build resistance to smallpox.

 

This discovery spread to Turkey, and later introduced to Europe in 1718. 

Image from The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

"There were many methods of inoculation, including the snuffing of fried and ground scabs in the nose or the sewing of an infected threat through the webbing between the thumb and finger, but in England it was often practiced by making a slit or flap in the skin into which infectious material was placed, like the slit in the bark of a tree that received the young stem grafted to it. When the word inoculate was first used to describe variolation, it was a metaphor for grafting a disease, which would bear its own fruit, to the rootstock of the body." 

-Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Inoculation

Dr. Jenner Performing his First Vaccination on James Phipps

Long before viruses were scientifically identified, Edward Jenner, a country doctor, observed that milkmaids rarely became infected with smallpox. Many of these women had previously been infected with a similar disease, cowpox, after milking cows. Jenner used the cowpox pus and scratched it into a boy’s arm. After the procedure was completed, the boy became immune to smallpox.

 

Vaccines soon became widespread. 

Painting by Ernest Board

Dr Jenner performing his first vaccinati

"[Cotton] Mathers, who had lost a wife and three children to measles, convinced a local doctor to inoculate two slaves and the doctor's own young son when an epidemic of smallpox spread through Boston in 1721... Mathers, the author of an account of the Salem witch trials that was considered overzealous even in his time, began preaching that variolation was a gift from God, a sentiment so unpopular that a firebomb was thrown through his window. The accompanying message read, "Cotton Mather, you dog. Damn you! I'll inoculate you with this with a pox to you." ​

-Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Inoculation

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Modern Smallpox Vaccine

Today, vaccines are injected with a needle into the patients arm or leg. Vaccines help train our immune system to fight infections. They trick our body with antibodies to learn to fight diseases, without actually getting you the sick.

 

Sometimes vaccines are live and inject the virus into your body. Others are inactivated, dead versions of the virus. All inoculations are helpful to provide critical protection against germs. 

Image from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library