Who discovered the smallpox vaccine?

SMALLPOX plagued humans for millenia, with even Egyptian mummies found with evidence of smallpox rashes.

But the world was declared free from smallpox in 1980 – so how did it get to that milestone, and who do we have to thank?


The smallpox vaccine in 1796 was the very first vaccination against contagious diseasesCredit: Getty Images – Getty

Who discovered the smallpox vaccine?

Edward Jenner was the first to create, and promote, the smallpox vaccine, pulling together ideas from medicine and farm culture.

Doctors knew for a while that a little bit of smallpox made people less ill and less people died.

They scratched material from smallpox sores into the skin of non-infected people, or had them sniff it up their noses, in a technique called variolation.

Edward Jenner used the same idea, but with cowpox, which was not deadly to humans, instead of smallpox, in his vaccine, which was first used in 1796.

Cowpox made people feel a bit unwell with a few spots or blisters on their hands – but smallpox killed three in ten people who caught it, and scarred those it didn’t kill.

About four million Aztecs are thought to have died when Europeans transported smallpox to the Americas during their exploration in the early 1500s.

And smallpox killed over three million people worldwide in the 20th century – and that was with a vaccine available.

Jenner’s cowpox variolation was successful, and he developed the smallpox vaccine from this work.

Following this was a huge effort to vaccinate against smallpox, and in the 1950s and 60s there were two intensive World Health Organisation (WHO) programs to eradicate smallpox.

Rahima Banu, aged three, was the last to be infected with the naturally occurring, more deadly Virola Major strain of smallpox, in 1975 – and she survived.

Ali Maow Maalin naturally acquired Virola Minor, and also survived, in 1977.

And Janet Parker was the last person to die of smallpox, at aged 40, after catching it from a laboratory in 1978.

Who was Edward Jenner?

Edward Jenner was an English doctor who was born in Gloucestershire in 1749 and lived to 74 – an impressive age for his time – before dying in 1823.

Jenner had been inoculated for smallpox using the method of variolation, and he got the idea of using cowpox from farm workers.

A lot of farm workers believed that people, mostly women, who got cowpox while milking did not get smallpox.

Jenner made his first attempt in 1796, and it was successful.

After many more experiments, Jenner published his work in 1801.

He promoted his new method – but sometimes the cowpox samples he sent out became contaminated with smallpox in hospitals, so some people didn’t trust his vaccine.

The last person to die of smallpox was medical photographer Janet Parker, in 1978, at the age of 40


The last person to die of smallpox was medical photographer Janet Parker, in 1978, at the age of 40Credit: Alamy

Others were just resistant to change, and some people thought it was dangerous or irreligious for humans to be ‘contaminated’ with material originating from cows.

A huge step came when variolation was banned by parliament in 1840, and the smallpox vaccination was made compulsory in 1853.

Jenner was given loads of honorary awards, and many a monument in celebration of his work on the vaccine.

And the cow is also celebrated for its role – because the word “vaccine” is from the Latin “vaca”, meaning cow.

Who was the first person to receive the smallpox vaccine?

James Phipps, the nine-year-old son of Edward Jenner’s gardener, was the first person to be given the smallpox vaccine, on May 14, 1796.

The cowpox that was rubbed into scratches on James’ arm came from a sore on the hand of Sarah Nelmes, who had caught it from a cow named Blossom.

Jenner exposed James to smallpox several times a few months later, but it didn’t make James ill.

The Virola Virus, which causes smallpox, still exists in two research centres – one in the USA and the other in Russia.

Having smallpox was a pretty unpleasant experience involving headaches, vomiting and fever, followed by spots, blistering and sores, then a lot of pus and scabs.

If you were lucky enough to survive, you usually bore the scars.

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