edward jenner and the birth of vaccination


Smallpox was always a disease of great mortality, but finally in 1970 and thanks to the efforts of health policies it was eradicated from the world, of course, this would not have been possible without a vaccine. In the following paragraphs we will tell the story of the birth of vaccination and Edward Jenner as both stories are linked.

What was done before vaccination?

It was the 18th century in England, more precisely in 1721, when Lady Mary Wortley Montague learned the strange habit known as variolation from the Ottoman empire which consisted of using the pus of a person sick with smallpox and introducing it into another person through a wound, the inoculated person had to be isolated for approximately 30 days since it could infect the population. The mortality rate was high and those who survived were left with sequelae of the disease, however, there was no other treatment at that time.

Over time, several doctors in different parts of Europe, not comfortable with the management of the disease, realized that individuals who were infected with cowpox also generated protection against their human version, so they did tests with relatives and friends, among these are: John Fewster, Sutton, Sevel, Jensen, Dorset Benjamin Jesty, Rendell, and Peter Plett school. However, none of them were listened by the scientific authorities and smallpox continued to claim lives.

Edward Jenner’s early years

While all this was happening on May 17, 1749, our hero, Edward Jenner, was born in Berkeley, England. He studied medicine as an apprentice to John Ludlow in 1761 and later with Dr. John Hunter and became the doctor of his town. Jenner was always given to solitary walks which allowed him to discover other things besides vaccination (but that’s another story) and it must have been on one of these walks when he learned about the findings from the other doctors previously named.

He pondered these findings for a time and proposed that since the people who milked the cows had a mild version of smallpox and that later these people when exposed to human smallpox did not present any symptoms, it should be possible to treat the disease in this way and that perhaps this could be used not only to isolated cases as the others had done, but to the population.

James Phipps

For this purpose, in 1796 he inoculated a strain of cowpox to the son of his gardener, James Phipps. After this Edward Jenner decided to wait a reasonable time and then he carried out variolization with the human smallpox virus in the boy, which when carried out did not produce any symptoms. With this success in mind, he performed the same experiment on 22 people and wrote a document, which was sent to medical schools.

As has always happened in the field of research, medical schools rejected the new theory and tried by all means to refute such finding, but in the face of the facts there is nothing to do and many other people saw that the discovery worked. For example, Napoleon in 1805 had his troops vaccinated and several monarchs of the time also did it with their relatives, demonstrating that Jenner’s method worked and was safe. There was even a philanthropic expedition to vaccinate Latin America and the Philippines, led by Francisco Javier Balmis.

In the end and like everything in medical knowledge, the doctors and scientists of that time accepted the change from varialization to the Jenner method and Edward Jenner received awards from all over the world.


The reason why he and not the others are recognized as the creators of the vaccination is due to the fact that they have carried out a demonstration of immunity to human smallpox using cowpox and that it was not necessary to obtain the sample directly from the cow but that could be done from person to person.

For me there are two conclusions: 1. Science must be flexible to change. 2. As Newton apparently said “If I have come to see further than others it is because I climbed on the shoulders of giants”, Edward Jenner achieved what he did because he relied on the findings of other people.


  • https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Jenner
  • LEDERMANN, W. (2003). ¿ Se acuerda de Jenner?. Revista chilena de infectología, 20, 21-23.
  • de Micheli, A., & Izaguirre-Ávila, R. (2011). La vacunación antivariólica antes y después de Jenner. Revista de Investigación Clínica, 63(1), 84-89

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