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Smallpox was the first disease to be eradicated from the world by vaccination. This lesson is about Edward Jenner and his contributions to the development of the smallpox vaccine.


You may have heard of smallpox, but you probably don’t know anyone who’s had it.

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That’s because, thanks to vaccination, smallpox has been eradicated from the world since 1980.Smallpox is a deadly disease caused by the variola virus. It causes painful lesions that leave disfiguring scars on the skin of people who survive and can also cause blindness. However, many infected people do not survive. Smallpox had a fatality rate ranging from 20-60% in adults and even higher in infants.


Before its eradication, smallpox had been around for a very long time, probably since 10,000 B.C.! Smallpox epidemics played a role in the fall of some major human societies, including the Roman Empire and, after being carried to the New World by the Spanish conquistadors, the Aztec and Incan Empires.Thanks to a remarkable vaccination campaign during the 1950s through the 1970s, smallpox was eradicated worldwide by 1980. Eradication means that the virus does not exist in the natural population anymore, and it is no longer necessary to try to prevent new infections.Now the variola virus only exists in a few well-guarded laboratory stockpiles. Because it’s no longer present in the human population and no longer vaccinated against, there are fears that the virus could be used as a biological weapon.

World governments are thus taking precautions against possible smallpox epidemics.

Early Immunity to Smallpox

Since smallpox was historically such a major problem in human societies, people had always attempted to control the disease. As early as 430 B.

C., people knew that if you survived a smallpox infection, you would be immune to the disease later on. That’s why they asked smallpox survivors to nurse people suffering from the disease.In the 1600s and 1700s, people began to use infectious material from smallpox patients to immunize uninfected people. They would take fluid from a patient’s lesions and use a sharp instrument to introduce it under the skin of an uninfected person.

This process was called inoculation, or variolation. While variolation could cause smallpox symptoms and transmit other diseases, such as syphilis and tuberculosis, people were still ten times less likely to die from variolation than from naturally transmitted smallpox.It was also common knowledge that dairymaids were often immune to smallpox. This was because they were exposed to cowpox, a similar virus that affects cows. In humans, it causes a much milder version of smallpox. If the dairymaids got cowpox, they would be immune to smallpox afterwards, because the antibodies their bodies had made against the cowpox virus would also work against the smallpox virus.

Edward Jenner’s Smallpox Vaccine

It was Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823) who put these pieces of information together and scientifically tested them. Jenner was a physician who was also very interested in various natural sciences, studying bird behavior, human blood, hydrogen and hot air balloons, and geology. His broad interest in the sciences led him to carry out the first scientific studies of immunity to smallpox.

In 1796, Jenner decided to test whether you could transmit cowpox to healthy people on purpose in order to immunize them against smallpox. He called this procedure vaccination from the Latin word vacca, which means ‘cow.’ Jenner tested vaccination on an 8-year old boy, and it worked! The boy didn’t get smallpox when experimentally infected with it a couple of months later.At first, Jenner’s results were controversial in the medical community. Jenner tried to find more volunteers to further test vaccination, but no one was willing. However, thanks to a few other influential doctors who believed Jenner’s study and further tested vaccination, by 1800 the practice was common in Europe and soon spread to the United States as well. Importantly, vaccination using cowpox was safer than variolation using smallpox, because if a cowpox infection developed, it was much milder than a smallpox infection.

By 1840, variolation was prohibited in England because vaccination was so much safer.Although Edward Jenner was not the first to discover that previous infection with smallpox or cowpox makes people immune to future smallpox infections, his contributions to the smallpox vaccine were major.

Results of Smallpox Vaccination

Jenner was the first to perform a scientific study to conclusively show that vaccination could be used to safely immunize people against smallpox. Many people consider Jenner’s study to be the foundation of modern immunology.Even though his work was met with a lot of criticism, resistance and even ridicule, Jenner relentlessly promoted vaccination and continued researching its effectiveness for years after his initial discovery.

Edward Jenner was so devoted to the cause of vaccination that he set up a small cottage in his backyard where he vaccinated the poor for free.Thanks to Jenner’s research, it was possible for the World Health Organization’s global smallpox vaccination campaign to completely eradicate smallpox from the Earth by 1980. This remarkable public health achievement has not yet been repeated for any other human disease.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we’ve learned that survivors of smallpox or cowpox became immune to future smallpox infections.

Edward Jenner took the common wisdom that dairymaids were protected against smallpox by being exposed to cowpox and transformed it into scientific studies that led to the practice of vaccination. His research and promotion of vaccination made the global eradication of smallpox possible almost two centuries later.

Things to Remember About Smallpox

Smallpox warnings
  • Smallpox – a deadly disease caused by the variola virus; there were fatality rates of 20%-60% in adults and higher in children
  • Variola virus – causes painful lesions that leave disfiguring scars on the skin of people who survive and can also cause blindness
  • Eradication – the virus does not exist in the natural population anymore; it is no longer necessary to try to prevent new infections
  • Controlling the disease – survivors were found to be immune and asked to take care of patients who later contracted the disease
  • Inoculation or variolation – infected patients had their lesions pricked with a needle, then the needle was placed under the skin of the uninfected
  • Cowpox – a similar virus that affected cows
  • Vaccination – a procedure developed by Edward Jenner, a physician familiar with smallpox and cowpox
  • Scientific study – Jenner’s work first to conclusively show that vaccination could be used to safely immunize people against smallpox
  • World Health Organization – eradicated smallpox by 1980 through a worldwide vaccination campaign

Learning Outcomes

Complete this lesson on smallpox in an effort to:

  • Remember the cause of smallpox
  • Outline the history of the disease
  • Discuss the attempts of early civilizations to immunize people against smallpox
  • Describe the work of Edward Jenner
  • Recognize the importance of vaccinations to medicine

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