On this day, 221 years ago, something happened which would save countless millions of lives. For thousands of years people had been falling victim to a terrible disease – smallpox. This caused pus-filled blisters on the skin and killed a third of those who contracted it. In the 18th Century, it was responsible for around half a million deaths every year. But, on May 14th 1796, Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine against it.
Jenner was born in Gloucestershire in 1749. He was always interested in science and liked to look at plants, animals and fossils. Then, when he left school, he decided he wanted to be a doctor. He studied in London and then returned to his hometown to practise.
In the course of his work, Jenner noticed that milkmaids hardly ever caught smallpox. In those days cows were still milked by hand and milkmaids often caught a disease from the cows, cowpox. Cowpox was similar to smallpox, though much less harmful.
This got Jenner thinking. He decided to try an experiment in which he took some pus from a blister on a girl with cowpox. He then spread the pus on a small cut he made in a young boy’s skin (hypodermic needles hadn’t been invented yet). As expected, the boy caught cowpox – now the dangerous part! Jenner gave the boy a very mild dose of smallpox to see if he would get sick – he didn’t. The experiment had worked!
Jenner repeated his experiment on others, including his own son, and got the same results. He had found a way to protect people against the killer disease, smallpox. He called this treatment a vaccine, from the Latin word vaccinus, meaning from cows. It soon caught on and all around the world vaccination became common. Every year fewer and fewer people caught the disease and it was finally wiped out in the 1990s.
An interest in science and nature can lead you to some amazing places – just look at Jenner as an example! If, like him, you love science then try our quizzes. We have ones for all ages from KS1 through to GCSE, including a few on Jenner’s work. Take a look – there’s always something new to discover!