Vaccine 101: A History Lesson

Today vaccination is considered a normal part of childhood and life for many. But do you know the origins of this life saving scientific discovery? Who were the big players and when? Hop in your TARDIS, DeLorean, or time machine of choice to take a trip back in time with me to visit some of the major milestones in the history of vaccinations.

First stop, the 1700s

Let’s start in the late 1700s, where smallpox is devastating mankind, killing 400,000 people annually.  However, some milkmaids are found to be immune to smallpox after suffering from cowpox. Hearing stories, the physician Edward Jenner  formulates the idea that deliberate exposure to cowpox could offer protection from smallpox. In 1796 he tests this idea by taking a sample from a milkmaid’s cowpox blister and deliberately infecting an eight year old boy. Later he infects the boy with a  smallpox sample and finds that no disease has developed. Jenner continues to repeat these experiments with cowpox, eventually coining the terms vaccine and vaccination from the latin word for cow, vacca. Jenner’s work with cowpox would go down in history as the first vaccine. Thanks to the initial efforts of Jenner, and thousands after him who continued his mission, smallpox was considered eradicated from the world two hundred years later in 1980, following a global health campaign by the World Health Organization.


Edward Jenner vaccinating a patient. Image Credit: Flickr via Pan American Health Organization.

Next up, the 1800s

Let’s hop back in our time machine and pay a visit to bacteriologist Louis Pasteur in Paris in the year 1855. Pasteur has been using the spinal cords from deceased rabid rabbits to grow the rabies virus, he injects the virus in to dogs in hopes of exposing and protecting them against rabies. Fortunately his experiments prove successful; soon after a young boy, Joseph Meister, arrives at Pasteur’s laboratory seeking help after receiving bites from a rabid dog. Pasteur injects the boy with virus obtained from the spinal cords of an infected rabbit, and after three weeks the boy recovers from the usually fatal disease. Later that year Pasteur’s work is recognized by the Academy of Science, and the Pasteur Institute is established as both a rabies treatment center and an infectious disease training and research institute. But this is not the only vaccine milestone of the 1800s; in the 1890s scientists will create the first inactivated vaccines to combat cholera, plague, and typhoid epidemics. The creation of inactivated vaccines is a huge step forward; it allows for protection to be generated by using whole organisms that are killed or no longer able to replicate in humans. This eliminated the potential to cause disease presented by live vaccines. Now on to the 20th century where our vaccine history tour continues.


The Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris. Image Credit: Flickr via Guilheim Vellut.

On the road again, 1900s here we come

The 1900s is a century full of vaccination milestones. Traveling into the 20th century, we find vaccines for pertussis (whooping cough), chicken pox, measles, hepatitis B, and tetanus. Our first stop takes us to 1923 to see Alexander Glenny and Barbara Hopkins. They work with diptheria toxin, produced by the bacteria C. diptheriae. This toxin causes respiratory complications by creating a thick gray coating of the nose and throat, which can then travel through the bloodstream to damage other organs. Glenny and Hopkins find that treating the toxin with the chemical formalin renders it inactive; they call this inactivated toxin a toxoid. The next year Gaston Ramon uses this toxoid as a vaccine against diptheria, making it the first vaccine developed without the use of a whole organism.  

Our last stop takes us to Jonas Salk in the 1950s. During this time, polio holds U.S. citizens in fear as outbreaks cause more than 15,000 cases of paralysis annually. As head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh in 1952, Salk is hard at work on a polio vaccine. He chemically inactivates the virus and finds it is still able to trigger the necessary immune response to create protection against polio. He first tests the vaccine on 15,000 Pittsburgh area subjects, followed by a large scale test of over 1.8 million individuals.  Jumping ahead to 1955, after millions of tests, the vaccine is announced as safe and effective. Thanks to the work of Salk and his team, polio would later be eradicated from the United States, with the last known case reported in 1979. At last, we can now arrive back in the 21st century.


Jonas Salk honored by President Eisenhower for his polio vaccine. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons via wikiwatcher1.

Full steam ahead to the 21st century

In our current century we have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to health, due to the work of these important vaccination pioneers as well as current researchers who continue to create more efficient and new vaccines. In our own lifetimes, we have already seen the creation of important vaccines like the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine and herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine here in the 21st century. Even more are being developed for diseases such as HIV, Zika, and Ebola. Vaccines have come a long way from the days of cowpox lesions, and they’ve played a major role in global health, preventing 2-3 million deaths annually and eradicating multiple diseases. Scientists continue to work towards the next big vaccine, hoping to engrave their name on the vaccine history timeline next to these great pioneers.

About the Author

10659344_10200100310786746_7394532827731756991_nA native Virginian (GO HOKIES!), Caitlin Reeves is a PhD candidate in the Microbiology department studying attachment of the human respiratory pathogen Mycoplasma pneumoniae to its human host. Outside of the lab she can be found planning events for UGA’s Women in Science (WiSci) organization, snuggling with her labradoodle Sherlock, or playing video games despite being a 26 year old “adult”.