For centuries, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People had tried nearly everything to knock it out—from herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day (yep, that was a real recommendation from a 17th century doctor), to intentionally infecting themselves with smallpox and hoping they didn’t get sick, all to no avail.
And then, in the 18th century, an English doctor heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but if it worked, it would stop smallpox before it started. So one spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, the English doctor decided to run an experiment. Thanks to that ethically questionable but ultimately world-altering experiment (and Blossom the cow) we got the word vaccine.
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"The cow-pock - or - the wonderful effects of the new inoculation" by James Gillray in 1802, featured at the beginning of this episode.
(Library of Congress)
Footnotes And Further Reading:
Special thanks to Elena Conis, Gareth Williams, and the Edward Jenner Museum.
Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.
We found many of the facts in this episode in “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination” from Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings.
Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.