Jenner’s vaccination against smallpox and medical advances of the 18th century

In 18th-century Europe, smallpox, commonly known as the “speckled monster”, affected all levels of society: from the elite to the poor. Jenner’s vaccination against smallpox radically changed public health in England and laid the foundations of modern immunology.

At age 13, Edward Jenner was apprenticed to a country surgeon and apothecary near Bristol. There, he learned that dairymaids never had smallpox after suffering from cowpox. Ten years later, whilst practicing medicine, he pondered the phenomenon of smallpox-resistant dairymaids and concluded that exposure to cowpox protected the dairymaids against smallpox and that this immunity could be transmitted from one person to another. He decided to investigate further. In May 1796, Jenner inoculated cowpox lesions from a sick dairymaid, and placed it in an 8-year-old boy. The boy fell sick but recovered after 10 days. Then, Jenner inoculated the boy with smallpox lesions and no smallpox developed. The boy was immune to smallpox.

After this major discovery, Jenner encouraged all people to get vaccinated and even built a hut beside his house to vaccinate the poor for free. His vaccination program was so significant to the public health initiative that poor law officials almost immediately adopted Jenner’s method to vaccinate the poor. “Pest houses” were often erected adjacent to the workhouses to contain the poor that were either afflicted by smallpox or had just received the vaccination. By 1800, most European countries adopted vaccination practices. Ultimately, Jenner’s push to vaccinate all people emphasized the need for more public health and social welfare initiatives in England.



Stefan Riedel, “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination,” Proceedings (Baylor University Medical Center) 18 (January 2005): 21-25.

Higginbotham, Peter. “Loddon and Clavering, Norfolk.” Accessed January 21, 2018.

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