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225 years ago: Edward Jenner’s pioneering vaccination act




“The disease ravaged the families, killed and disfigured many children. (…) The evil now also affected our house and attacked me with particular violence. My whole body was covered with leaves, my face covered, and I lay for several days blind and in great suffering. “

Painful, smelly pus pustules

This is how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described smallpox, or pox, as it was also called, which he had survived as a child. For centuries the highly contagious disease dragged on millions of people: princes and kings, peasants and beggars, many children. It started with a fever and aching limbs, then came the typical pustules that swelled, hurt and stank from the pus.

“And as the name suggests, at that time no scientific name was given, but always named after the symptoms, and according to the appearances on the skin, these characteristic smallpox.”

400,000 deaths from smallpox annually

Says the medical historian Robert Jütte. People were afraid of smallpox in ancient times, and since the Middle Ages it has been rampant in Europe. Anyone who survived the variola virus infection may have been blind or deaf afterwards, or almost certainly with unsightly scars. About every third person infected with smallpox died of the disease. At the end of the 18th century there were around 400,000 deaths from smallpox in Europe. Each year. “That is why it was one of the most dangerous epidemics in human history,” said Robert Jütte.

Microscopic view of smallpox virus.  You can see purple-colored egg-shaped structures with small hairs on the edge.  (imago / StockTrek Images) (imago / StockTrek Images)Even the Vikings had smallpox – on the trail of the evolution of viruses
Researchers have analyzed the genes of Vikings and found that they contracted smallpox. The virus was nowhere near as threatening. Only gradually did it mutate into one of the most dangerous pathogens.

The idea of ​​specifically vaccinating smallpox masters came from Asia

The man who made the breakthrough in the fight against the disease was Edward Jenner, a country doctor who had practiced in south-west England since the 1770s and was obsessed with finding a way to deal with smallpox. We already knew that after an infection one could not fall ill again. The idea of ​​so-called variolation came from Asia, i.e. the deliberate inoculation of smallpox masters in order – so the hope – to provoke a mild infection. That was a life-threatening procedure. Edward Jenner, however, combined the knowledge of the variolation with an observation from his rural environment: Many milkers were apparently immune to smallpox, according to Robert Jütte:

“And of course a country doctor like Edward Jenner heard of that, and so since the 1780s he has simply collected the cases that had come to his ears.”

Edward Jenner’s crucial experiment

The farmers suspected that it must be an infection with the harmless cowpox that protected against the dangerous human pox. In 1796, Edward Jenner made his decisive experiment: he asked the milkmaid Sarah Nelmes, who had just contracted cowpox, to come to his practice. About her case, Jenner wrote:

“The infection was just gripping a spot on the hand where it had recently been scratched with a thorn. A large ulcerated pustule was one of the usual symptoms of the disease.”




Intentional injection of cowpox

The doctor took liquid from this pustule and scratched it on the arm of his gardener’s son, eight-year-old James Phipps. So he deliberately infected the child with cowpox:

“On the 7th day he complained of heaviness in the armpit, on the 9th day a slight chill attacked him, he lost his appetite and had a slight headache. He was obviously ill throughout the day and spent the nights restless, but the next Days he felt fine again. “

At a demonstration in England, a green sign is held up showing the head of Bill Gates and a syringe.  (picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com / Joel Goodman) (picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com / Joel Goodman)Cultural scientist on opponents of vaccination – “Traces of a para-religious story”
Pandemics were once considered God’s punishment. Medicine was suspected of thwarting the divine plan. This interpretation is hardly accepted today. However, cultural scientist Andreas Bernard sees such thought patterns in corona deniers. These cannot even be changed through experience, he said in the Dlf.

As expected, the boy recovered quickly from the cowpox. But now the more important and risky part of this human experiment followed: On July 1, 1796 Jenner infected the child with human pox:

“In order to give me greater certainty whether this boy, infected in such a mild form by the cowpox virus, would be immune to variola, I subjected him (…) to the vaccination with the flaky matter taken from a pustule. It was stabbed on both arms after several punctures and carefully transferred cuts, but there was no breakout of the leaves. “

Black and white picture of people who have pulled clear plastic capes over their clothes.  (picture-alliance / dpa / Roland Scheidemann) (picture-alliance / dpa / Roland Scheidemann) Novel about the outbreak of smallpox in the Eifel – “Vulnerability that is part of human life”
Smallpox broke out in Monschau in 1962. Steffen Kopetzky wrote a novel about these historical events in Corona times. The smallpox was something “like the Corona of the time,” said the writer in the Dlf. A lot of mistakes were made back then at the beginning of the outbreak.

That was the proof: the vaccination with cowpox had worked and protected against human pox. It was the beginning of the long end of the epidemic, in 1980 the World Health Organization was able to announce: Smallpox has been eradicated. The term vaccination for vaccination is still reminiscent of Jenner’s discovery – derived from the Latin word vacca for “the cow”.


Arjun Sethi
Passionate guitarist, gamer and writer. Lives for the perfect review, and scrapes texts until they are razor-sharp.
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