How was vaccination discovered?

We have been trying to protect ourselves from disease for centuries. There are records dating back to the 17th century and some evidence from India and China as early as 1000 BC, that tell us this.

Centuries ago, the Turkish people had a traditional practice of rubbing scabs from infected people onto the skin of healthy people to protect them against smallpox infection. This method, which later became known as inoculation, came to the attention of doctors in England in the 18th century, and was adopted in England and France at that time.

While these crude methods often caused serious and sometimes life-threatening smallpox infections, in 1796 an English doctor named Edward Jenner pioneered a much safer approach to immunising people against smallpox.

Jenner inoculated healthy people with fluid containing the cowpox virus. Cowpox is an infection that usually infects cows (as the name suggests), but it can also infect humans. It’s very similar to smallpox, but is a much less dangerous disease.

Jenner found that by inoculating people with the cowpox virus, they were protected from infection by the smallpox virus. He also discovered that this immunity could be passed from one person to another. This process became known as vaccination (from the Latin word vacca, meaning cow). Thanks to Jenner, smallpox has effectively been eradicated.

Today our understanding of how the immune system works, and how it protects us from infection (immunity) is much more advanced thanks to Jenner and other pioneers in the field of immunology.