This Month in History
May 1796 - The First Smallpox Vaccination
Inoculation against smallpox has a long history, being practised in China perhaps as early as the tenth century AD and spreading to the Ottoman Empire, India and parts of Africa. Knowledge of inoculation reached Britain through Lady Montagu, who witnessed it during her time in the Ottoman Empire, while in America Cotton Mather attempted to use inoculation to slow the 1721 Boston smallpox epidemic discovering the practice from his slave, Onesimus, who had been inoculated in Africa.
It was not until Edward Jenner’s work on cowpox that the first steps to an effective vaccine were taken. Jenner observed how the rates of small pox infection were considerably lower amongst milkmaids in contact with cow pox, and on May 1796 he inserted pus taken from a cowpox lesion on Sarah Nelmes into the arm of a local boy James Phipps. Though James was found to be immune to smallpox, vaccination was not immediately accepted and a further 12 months of tests, including on Jenner’s own son, were undertaken, being published in 1798. Because germ theory had not yet been developed and viruses such as smallpox were invisible to microscopes of the time, Jenner’s work took some time to gain acclaim; however, once the efficacy of vaccination became clear the treatment spread and in 1853 vaccination became mandatory for all British children. Smallpox was fully eradicated from the human population by 1979.