As I write this, much of the world is still in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. As people across the globe struggle to protect themselves with face masks, social distancing and self-isolation, scientists are scrambling to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine.
But this isn’t the first race to develop a vaccine. In the 18th century, Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine, to combat smallpox. It’s a story that’s still inspiring and relevant today.
The Scourge of Smallpox
You can’t overestimate the horror of smallpox. For centuries it was rightly feared for the way it killed, disabled and disfigured people on a massive scale.
Smallpox killed at least 20 percent of its victims. It was especially brutal to children. According to data collected in Glasgow, a city famed for its careful record-keeping, from about 1783 to 1800 approximately half all children born died before they reached the age of 10, and smallpox was responsible for 40 percent of those deaths.
Other statistics show that during the same time period the mortality rate among infants who contracted smallpox was nearly 80 percent in London and 98 percent in Berlin.
Imagine those figures – absolutely heart-breaking!
The disease did other damage, too. Survivors were usually left with disfiguring scars, especially on their faces. Plus, before the vaccination era, smallpox was the chief cause of blindness throughout Europe.
The First Inoculations
But by the 18th century it was widely believed that if you could survive smallpox you’d be immune to it. In fact, we know that as early as 436 B.C. (which shows you how long smallpox plagued mankind) smallpox survivors were the ones who took care of the sick.
Armed with this knowledge, people developed a way to combat smallpox by deliberately exposing themselves to it. They developed a process called variolation, from the Latin word variola that was used at the time for smallpox.
Variolation was done by piercing the skin of an arm or leg, usually with a sharp lancet dripping with fluid from an active smallpox blister. Another method involved rubbing a piece of fluid-soaked cloth over a scratch on the skin.
This practice was used widely in Asia and the Middle East, and while it sounded barbaric to Western ears it often worked – the rate and the severity of smallpox infections dropped significantly when variolation was performed.
Variolation Goes West
Variolation came to England in the early 18th century. It happened soon after Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, saw the procedure performed in Istanbul.
If anyone had a reason to hate smallpox, it was Lady Mary. Not only had her brother died from it, but a bout with smallpox in 1715 left her, once a celebrated beauty, with a badly scarred face.
While living In Turkey, Lady Mary had her 5-year-old son variolated by embassy surgeon Charles Maitland. But when she got back home, she discovered English doctors opposed this foreign practice.
That didn’t stop her. When a smallpox epidemic loomed in 1721, she insisted her 4-year-old daughter be variolated. Once again Dr. Maitland performed the procedure, but this time Lady Mary made sure royal physicians saw him do it. When Maitland also successfully variolated two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722, variolation became acceptable in English society.
But variolation had its downsides. The biggest drawback was the risk of the procedure going spectacularly wrong. If that happened, variolation could give someone smallpox or make them a carrier of the disease.
The concept of inoculating someone against smallpox by introducing a small amount of it into their bodies seemed to work. But how could this procedure not only be safer, but easier to administer to lots of people?
The answer to that question is in my next post, The First Vaccine, Part 2.