Thousands of years ago, it was first recognized that individuals who survived a smallpox infection were immune to subsequent infections. The practice of inoculating individuals to actively protect them from smallpox appears to have originated in the 10th century in China, when the practice of variolation was described. Variolation refers to the deliberate inoculation of individuals with infectious material from scabs or pustules of smallpox victims. Infectious materials were either injected into the skin or introduced through the nasal route. The infection that developed was usually milder than naturally acquired smallpox, and recovery from the milder infection provided protection against the more serious disease.
Although the majority of individuals treated by variolation developed only mild infections, the practice was not without risks. More serious and sometimes fatal infections did occur, and because smallpox was contagious, infections resulting from variolation could lead to epidemics. Even so, the practice of variolation for smallpox prevention spread to other regions, including India, Africa, and Europe.
Although variolation had been practiced for centuries, the English physician Edward Jenner (1749–1823) is generally credited with developing the modern process of vaccination. Jenner observed that milkmaids who developed cowpox, a disease similar to smallpox but milder, were immune to the more serious smallpox. This led Jenner to hypothesize that exposure to a less virulent pathogen could provide immune protection against a more virulent pathogen, providing a safer alternative to variolation. In 1796, Jenner tested his hypothesis by obtaining infectious samples from a milkmaid’s active cowpox lesion and injecting the materials into a young boy. The boy developed a mild infection that included a low-grade fever, discomfort in his axillae (armpit) and loss of appetite. When the boy was later infected with infectious samples from smallpox lesions, he did not contract smallpox. This new approach was termed vaccination, a name deriving from the use of cowpox (Latin vacca meaning “cow”) to protect against smallpox. Today, we know that Jenner’s vaccine worked because the cowpox virus is genetically and antigenically related to the Variola viruses that caused smallpox. Exposure to cowpox antigens resulted in a primary response and the production of memory cells that identical or related epitopes of Variola virus upon a later exposure to smallpox.
The success of Jenner’s smallpox vaccination led other scientists to develop vaccines for other diseases. Perhaps the most notable was Louis Pasteur, who developed vaccines for rabies, cholera, and anthrax. During the 20th and 21st centuries, effective vaccines were developed to prevent a wide range of diseases caused by viruses (e.g., chickenpox and shingles, hepatitis, measles, mumps, polio, and yellow fever) and bacteria (e.g., diphtheria, pneumococcal pneumonia, tetanus, and whooping cough,).
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology