Smallpox – 2: Serendipity

So, continuing.  Smallpox was around for a long time, until about 1979, when the World Health Organization declared the disease completely eradicated.  Who can you thank for this? Edward Jenner.

The above Wikipedia link is extensive, so here’s what he did, simplified.  Really, it was simple.  It was known during Jenner’s time that cowpox (a Vaccinia virus) could impart immunity to smallpox (a Variola virus) by innoculation, but nobody knew how.  Mankind got incredibly lucky, hence my title.  Jenner hypothesized that pus from a cowpox pustule did the trick.  That’s because milkmaids were known to be immune to smallpox.  Here’s an engraving of a cow utter with cowpox.  Lovely isn’t it?  (The pictures are from the Wellcome Image Library, and I encourage you to explore the site.)


So, Jenner took a pointy ivory stick

L0057751 Edward Jenner's ivory vaccination points, England, 1821

stuck it into a cowpox pustule from a milkmaid, and scraped the pus into the skin of his gardener’s son.  Lucky him – lucky for us.  (The Dowager might have approved the working class being guinea pigs, but I digress.)  After recovering from the cowpox illness, Jenner purposely infected the boy with smallpox.  This is known in modern medicine as a “challenge,” but was not out of the ordinary back then.  It was common to infect people with smallpox on purpose so they’d be immune when the next epidemic hit.  Life was a bitch, for sure.

This seems horrible to a modern sensibility. But this is just risk management, the essence of vaccination.  One endures the unpleasantness and (finite) risk of prevention in order to stave off a catastrophe.  It’s a biological insurance policy.  And side-by-side, here’s a brilliant illustration of the relative risks: These are drawings from 1803 of a smallpox innoculation and a cowpox innoculation.  The pictures start on Day 2 and end on Day 14.  Which side would you rather be on?  If a picture says a thousand words, well, I’ve said enough.

                                    Smallpox                                                        Cowpox

L0039159 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 2L0039160 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 3L0039161 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 4L0039162 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 5L0039163 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 6L0039164 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 7L0039165 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 8L0039166 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 9L0039167 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 10 L0039168 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 11L0039169 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 12L0039170 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 13L0039171 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 14L0039172 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 15L0039173 Smallpox (left) & cowpox inoculation, day 16

About patlowder

I'm a chemist, patent attorney, husband of one wife, dad of two sons, and I am (a progressive, whatever that label implies) Christian. I have had a rich, varied life and I give thanks for it. Just to be clear, this blog reflects personal views and is not intended as an advertisement for legal services, or should be considered a "law blog." You should not take anything I say to be a legal opinion on any topic and you don't create an attorney-client relationship by reading it. That requires an executed written contract.
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1 Response to Smallpox – 2: Serendipity

  1. Pingback: Typos, Peer Review, and Cold Fusion | Vaccines – Simplified

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