This is interesting: The history of smallpox vaccinations

by Tim Condon

MedicineSymbolDid you know that during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington required all his troops to be inoculated for smallpox?

I didn’t.

The process was different from the vaccines all of us old people received in our youth; it was an inoculation that was referred to at the time as…

…”variolation,” and it involved artificially infecting people with smallpox in a certain way. Smallpox was a huge scourge in Europe up to that time and after, where between 20% to 60% of people who got smallpox died,with the infant mortality rate as late as the late-1800’s being as much as 80% in England and up to 98% in Berlin, Germany.


The beginning of widespread practice of smallpox variolation came to America in 1721 when a smallpox epidemic broke out in Boston, Massachusetts. Variolation was advocated and performed by the Rev. Cotton Mather (a graduate of Harvard College and an amateur scientist) and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston. The procedure was violently resisted by many of the experts and other right-thinking people of the time, including many in the Boston medical community. At the height of the epidemic, when the debate was raging over the efficacy of variolation, Cotton Mather’s home was even bombed; but he and Dr. Boylston proved that the mortality rate of those who were variolated was only 2%, while 14% of the non-variolated population who contracted smallpox died (and this may have been the very first example of the use of comparative analysis in evaluating a medical procedure).

In 1796 English doctor Edward Jenner developed and demonstrated the use of a cowpox vaccination to confer immunity to smallpox by vaccinating an 8-year-old English boy named James Phipps. It worked. So of course Dr. Jenner’s paper describing the new process of “vaccination” was totally rejected by the Royal Society. And of course there was resistance from experts in the English medical community at the time. In fact, when Jenner went to London to prove that his vaccination worked, he searched for three months for volunteers and couldn’t find a single one!

LOL. Such is the history of the advancement of science and civilization. As science fiction writer Robert Heinlein put it in a famous quote, Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as “bad luck.”

I ran across the information above from an article in the Baylor University Medical Center journal, Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination. You can read the entire article online HERE. It’s fascinating.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: