These days the only time people think about smallpox is when scare stories circulate about some terrorist getting their hands on one of the two remaining vials of smallpox virus kept under round-the-clock security.
We should remember and be grateful for pioneers like Edward Jenner, who used the first vaccine to fight this ruthless disease, that has killed millions in the last three thousand years.
Jenner was a village doctor in Gloucestershire, England. His big break through came when he learned from the local dairy maids that once they’d had cow pox, they no longer seemed to get smallpox. Cowpox was a relatively mild disease caught from cows by the girls who milked them.
In May 1796 a milk maid called Sarah Nelmes came to Jenner’s surgery with cow pox. Jenner extracted some puss from his patient, and persuaded a local farmer to allow him to infect his eight year old son with cowpox in an experiment aimed at preventing him from ever contracting smallpox. The boy as expected contracted a mild form of cowpox and quickly recovered. Later Jenner attempted to infect the boy with a lethal dose of smallpox. But no disease developed, even after a second attempt to infect him.
The impact of Jenner’s work was so dramatic that by 1980 small pox was officially declared extinct.
So next time your child is vaccinated, remember with gratitude Edward Jenner whose daring experiment was so successful.