The history of vaccination: from Edward Jenner to anti-vaxxers

As the world continues to adapt to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, scientists are on the brink of discovering whether we have an effective coronavirus vaccine that will help return life to normal. Here’s everything you need to know about the history of the vaccine, from its discovery in the 18th century by physician Edward Jenner to the rise of anti-vaccination movements today

Dr Edward Jenner, a British physician, performing his first vaccination on James Phipps, a boy of eight, in 1796. (Photo by Getty Images)

When were vaccines invented?

From ancient times, the smallpox disease ravaged the globe, affecting all civilisations and walks of life. With a devastating mortality rate and no effective cure, millions died every year, and those who survived were left disfigured by deep scars – hence smallpox’s other name, ‘speckled monster’. It was a terribly successful killer, and might still be, were it not for English physician and surgeon Edward Jenner.

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During the 18th century, the traditional smallpox inoculation, ‘variolation’, was hazardous as it involved infecting a healthy person with a mild form of the disease in the hope of heightening immunity. Jenner – who, as a schoolboy, suffered a harrowing experience when he was variolated – strove to find a safer barrier against smallpox. From his medical practice in the town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, he set about his research, no doubt with the advice of his mentor, John Hunter, echoing in his ears: “Don’t think, try”.


Listen: Mary Fissell answers key questions about the history of medicine


He noticed that local milkmaids suffering from cowpox, a far-less harmful affliction contracted from cattle, seemed immune to smallpox. Encouraged, Jenner wanted to test whether cowpox could be used to save lives, and there was only one way to find out. On 14 May 1796, Jenner took the pus from the lesions of a cowpox patient, milkmaid Sarah Nelmes, and transferred it to his gardener’s eight-year-old son, James Phipps.

The boy fell ill over the next nine days but he fully recovered. Jenner then took the risky and ethically dubious step of infecting Phipps with a mild dose of smallpox to test his ‘vaccination’ – named after vacca, the Latin for cow. To Jenner’s delight, no smallpox developed and the vaccine was an overwhelming success.

Jenner’s vaccine spread, quickly replacing variolation, earning him acclaim from across the world – especially after 1803, when a special expedition sailed to the Americas to vaccinate thousands. The tide had turned – smallpox was conquerable. “Jenner was well respected for his discovery,” explains Professor Mary Fissell of John Hopkins University in a recent episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. “He actually requested the release of some English prisoners of war during the Napoleonic Wars, and Napoleon is said to have responded: ‘we can refuse that man nothing’. Vaccination was considered such an incredible gift to mankind.”

The work to rid the world of one of its worst and most widely spread diseases would take centuries but, in 1980, the World Health Organisation finally announced its total eradication with the words “Smallpox is dead!”

The rise of anti-vax movements

Today, vaccination is a commonplace practice around the world. In recent years, however, anti-vaccination movements (known as anti-vaxxers) have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the medical procedure, developing large platforms on social media and organising marches and demonstrations. Among these circles, the race to find a vaccine for Covid-19 has proved to be a particularly contentious issue. While medical experts tout a vaccine as the solution to the global pandemic, anti-vaxxers are concerned about the safety and effectiveness of such a vaccine – with feelings ranging from mild concern to outright hostility. In the UK, MP Chris Elmore, chair of Parliament’s all-party group on social media, has expressed concern about the spread of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, which he describes as a “ticking time bomb“.

According to Professor Fissell, vaccine scepticism is not necessarily a modern phenomenon. “As vaccination became a more accepted practice in the 19th century, the state started to want to make people get vaccinated,” she explains. “This created anti-vaccination movements, particularly among the British working class, who just didn’t want the state ruling their bodies. There was a lot of conflict about whether or not they could resist.

“It’s a template for, I think, where we are today in terms of people arguing that the state should not have the right to inject something into their bodies. But where are the limits of state power and state authority? This is a very profound political question. We may not always like the way it plays out on the ground in terms of the choices people make.”

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Mary E Fissell is professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University