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Eyewitness
Jenner and smallpox, 1796

Smallpox was a terrible disease. One in three of those who caught it died, and those who survived were often left badly disfigured.

Noting the common observation that milkmaids generally did not catch smallpox, Edward Jenner (1749-1823) innoculated a young boy called James Phipps using material from cowpox blisters on the hand of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom.

This proved to be the first successful attempt to create immunity in this way, but the finding would not be widely accepted until Jenner reported on a further 23 cases.

This account of the early experiments was given by Edward Jenner in a book published just five years later.

Edward Jenner and smallpox vaccination, 1796

During the investigation of the casual Cow Pox, I was struck with the idea that it might be practicable to propagate the disease by inoculation, after the manner of the Small Pox, first from the Cow, and finally from one human being to another. I anxiously waited some time for an opportunity of putting this theory to the test. At length the period arrived. The first experiment was made upon a lad of the name of Phipps, in whose arm a little Vaccine Virus was inserted, taken from the hand of a young woman who had been accidentally infected by a cow. Notwithstanding the resemblance which the pustule, thus excited on the boy's arm, bore to variolous inoculation, yet as the indisposition attending it was barely perceptible, I could scarcely persuade myself the patient was secure from the Small Pox. However, on his being inoculated some months afterwards, it proved that he was secure. This Case inspired me with confidence; and as soon as I could again furnish myself with Virus from the Cow, I made an arrangement for a series of inoculations. A number of children were inoculated in succession, one from the other; and after several months had elapsed, they were exposed to the infection of the Small Pox; some by Inoculation, others by various effluvia and some in both ways; but they all resisted it. The distrust and scepticism which naturally arose in the minds of medical men, on my first announcing so unexpected a discovery has now nearly disappeared. Many hundreds of them, from actual experience, have given their attestations that the inoculated Cow Pox proves a perfect security against the Small Pox; and I shall probably be within compass if I say, thousands are ready to follow their example; for the scope that this inoculation has now taken is immense. An hundred thousand persons, upon the smallest computation, have been inoculated in these realms.

Source: On the Origine of the Vaccine Inoculation, by Edward Jenner (D N Shury, 1801)