The History of Vaccinations

The practice of immunization dates back hundreds of years. Buddhist monks drank snake venom to confer immunity to snakebite and variolation (smearing of a skin tear with cowpox to confer immunity to smallpox) was practiced in 17th century China. Edward Jenner is considered the founder of vaccinology in the West in 1796, after he inoculated a 13 year-old-boy with vaccinia virus (cowpox), and demonstrated immunity to smallpox. In 1798, the first smallpox vaccine was developed. Over the 18th and 19th centuries, systematic implementation of mass smallpox immunization culminated in its global eradication in 1979.

Louis Pasteur’s experiments spearheaded the development of live attenuated cholera vaccine and inactivated anthrax vaccine in humans (1897 and 1904, respectively). The plague vaccine was also invented in the late 19th Century. Between 1890 and 1950, bacterial vaccine development proliferated, including the Bacillus-Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccination, which is still in use today. 

In 1923, Alexander Glenny perfected a method to inactivate tetanus toxin with formaldehyde. The same method was used to develop a vaccine against diphtheria in 1926. Pertussis vaccine development took considerably longer, with a whole-cell vaccine first licensed for use in the US in 1948.

Viral tissue culture methods developed from 1950-1985 and led to the advent of the Salk (inactivated) polio vaccine and the Sabin (live attenuated oral) polio vaccine. Mass polio immunization has now eradicated the disease from many regions around the world



Progress of polio elimination 1988 and 2014
Excerpted from: A brief history of vaccination

The first recorded use of vaccinations was an inoculation at 1000 AD by a Chinese physician.

Several accounts from the 1500s describe smallpox inoculation as practiced in China and India (one is referred to in volume 6 of Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China). Glynn and Glynn, in The Life and Death of Smallpox, note that in the late 1600s Emperor K’ang Hsi, who had survived smallpox as a child, had his children inoculated. That method involved grinding up smallpox scabs and blowing the matter into nostrils. Inoculation may also have been practiced by scratching matter from smallpox sore into the skin. It is difficult to pinpoint when the practice began, as some sources claim dates as early as 200 BCE. Excerpted from History of

The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine published an article named “The origins of inoculation” indicating that the practice began in the early 18th century in Britain and New England to protect people at risk of Small Pox. The article is located at the National Institute of Health website and a pdf is available for download.


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