History of Vaccination

It was observed by people of ancient civilizations that those who survived being stricken by an infectious disease almost never suffered a second attack.  Thucydides recorded centuries before the birth of Christ that when a plague was raging through Athens, there would have been no one to nurse the sick and dying if it had not been for the people who had already had the plague but had recovered from it.

The Early Stages of Vaccination

It is believed the practice of vaccination originated in India and China and spread westwards.  Not only did this practice save lives, it also became commercially important.  The French philosopher Voltaire wrote in the 17th century that to avoid disruption in the trade of young, beautiful maidens from Circassia to the harems of the Turkish Sultan during smallpox epidemics, the young Circassian women were inoculated with "a pustule from the most favorable sort of smallpox."  The idea grew and became popular that deliberate inoculation with smallpox pustules through a scratch in the skin or inhaled by the nose (variolation) could protect one from the hazards of a natural infection.

Ten percent of all deaths in London during the 17th and 18th centuries were aused by smallpox.  In the 19th century, British historian Thomas Macauley told about the ravages of this disease and how it tormented everyone who had not been stricken with it.  He also told how those who came down with it and lived became 'hideous' from the pockmarks.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin lamented that he lost one of his sons in 1736, a 4-year-old boy who succumbed to smallpox.  He noted how he bitterly regretted not giving him smallpox by inoculation.  He claims he mentioned it in his autobiography so other parents would see his regret and help them avoid a similar regret with their own children.

About 200 years ago, one of the most feared diseases was smallpox.  During the same time, 'cowpox' also was on the scene, an illness that was transmitted from cattle to humans.  Some people noticed that the individuals who came down with cowpox rarely caught the more deadly smallpox.  An English country doctor named Edward Jenner decided to try inoculating people who had not yet come down with the disease.

The new method of preventing smallpox was met with much suspicion even though Dr. Jenner met with a great degree of success.  However, in 1874 Germany became the first country to have compulsory vaccination against smallpox.  This act was followed by vaccination campaigns in other developed countries.  Less-developed countries eventually followed.

Once smallpox began to be eradicated from industrialized countries, people began to be concerned about side effects and adverse reactions. 

The Contributions of Louis Pasteur

French scientist Louis Pasteur made a second great advance in vaccinations.  Pasteur was the first to establish that infections were the result of invasions by small micro-organisms or microbes (or the germ theory of disease).  Prior to that, most people believed infections began spontaneously out of thin air.  This scientist also discovered how to change the properties of some microbes so their potential for causing disease was greatly reduced.  He also developed vaccinations against chicken cholera and anthrax. 

After it was proven that killed or inactivated bacteria were able to protect from other diseases, the next three vaccines to be developed were all made from inactivated bacterial preparations and were for fighting typhoid, cholera and the plague.

Antigens and Antibodies

Researchers began to grow bacteria in test tubes in liquid mediums.  With diptheria bacteria, it was discovered that if the bacteria were taken out by filtration, injecting a person with the liquid left over would still protect against the diseases typically caused by those bacteria.  The filtrate was seen to contain a toxin secreted by the bacteria and was recognized as a "specific antigen" associated with the bacterium.  An antigen is a substance which is recognized by the body as being foreign and thus is different to its own components.

Around the same time researchers found that the blood of people who had survived an infection (or had been successfully vaccinated), contained elements which would cause clumping of the bacteria.  Even more importantly, a transfusion of the serum from that person to another individual would protect the second person if they were exposed to the agent causing the disease.  These soluble elements became known as antibodies.

Vaccines Before World War II

Two live attenuated vaccines were developed prior to 1940.  One was for yellow fever.  The first whooping cough and rickettsia used inactivated bacterial vaccines.  In the 1920s, two toxoid vaccines were made to protect against diptheria and tetanus by treating the toxins with chemicals such as formalin.  Both have been remarkably effective.  As an example, there were over 200,000 cases of diptheria in the U.S. in 1921, but only five cases of this frightening disease in 1997.

Vaccines After World War II

Most of the vaccines in use today were developed after 1945.  When John Enders and his colleagues in the U.S. grew the polio virus in cultures in the 1950s, making it possible to grow many other viruses, and in turn, to develop vaccinations for these diseases.

This success with vaccine development was due to the advance in our knowledge of the body's immune system and new techniques refined through molecular biology.



  1. Ada, G.L. (2000).Vaccination : the facts, the fears, the future. Sydney, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin
  2. Godfrey, M. & Anderson, R. (2002). Exploding the myth of vaccination. Tauranga : R. Anderson
  3. Scheibner, V. (1993). Vaccination : 100 years of orthodox research shows that vaccines represent a medical assault on the immune system. Blackheath, NSW : V. Scheibner
  4. Studer, Hans-Peter. (2010). Vaccination : a guide for making personal choices. Edinburgh : Floris

Posted in History of Vaccination

Ask a Question Or Join a Discussion

Herb of the Day

Ginger Ginger is an herbaceous tropical perennial and grows from aromatic, tuberous rhizome which is knotty and branched. This...

Health tip of the Day

Homemade Healing Mixture for Dry and Cracked Feet Oils are rich in essential fatty acids, particularly linoleic acid. Linoleic and linolenic acids are needed for the grow...

Latest Post

Berries Smoothie - Youth Elixir Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamins C and K, dietary fiber, and flavonoids.........
Homemade Healing Mixture for Dry and Cracked Feet Oils are rich in essential fatty acids, particularly linoleic acid. Linoleic and linolenic acids are needed for the grow...
Bone Fractures When bones receive more pressure than they can withstand, a fracture occurs. Some of the more common causes are falls, ...
Indigestion Most people will suffer from indigestion (also known as dyspepsia) at some point in their lifetime. This condition is ty...
Gastroenteritis Gastroenteritis is typically caused by an irritation or infection of the intestines or stomach. It can cause diarrhea, v...
Gastritis Gastritis is most commonly caused by an infection of Heliobacter pylori bacteria, which is also the primary cause of ulc...