“Mom, I have a stomach ache and I am feeling sick!” Try this out at home and the quick response is bound to be, “Don’t worry, we will take you to the Doctor!” More often than not, if the ache is because you haven’t done your homework, the mere mention of the word ‘doctor’ cures you. Of course, if the problem is genuine no one will know the cure better than a doctor.

Edward Jenner invented the vaccine
Edward Jenner was an English physician who was the pioneer of smallpox vaccine — the world’s first vaccine. rook76 / Shutterstock.com

Know what the scariest thing about a doctor is? – that invariably you get an injection for all aches and pains. Do you know that a newborn child is given vaccination for many diseases? You may throw a tantrum and scream your head off to avoid the injection and inwardly mutter death threats at the person who invented such a painful method for treatment, but the fact remains that whenever we are sick an injection does the trick.
How did it begin? It so happened that one day in 1768, a young milkmaid visited a doctor in Gloucestershire, England. Though nearly everyone in the district was then sick with smallpox, a dreaded disease at that time, the milkmaid was not affected! In the eighteenth century, smallpox was a killer disease, as widespread as cancer now, but with the difference that the majority of its victims were young children.

When the doctor asked her the reason, the milkmaid remarked that she had already had cowpox, a disease with symptoms similar to those of smallpox, though in a very mild form. The significance of her remark was not lost on a young medical student, Edward Jenner, who was also present there.

Jenner was intrigued by this simple explanation that those who caught cowpox could not catch smallpox. After getting his degree, he returned to Gloucestershire to practice medicine and to devote his spare time in research and investigation. He found out that the milkmaid had been right: people who had cowpox very rarely caught smallpox.

On May 14, 1796, another milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, came to Jenner with cowpox. He conducted a daring experiment. He took some of the virus from the boils on Sarah’s hands and passed on the disease to James Phipps – his gardener’s son – by scratching his skin with infected metal (vaccination). When James had recovered from the cowpox, Jenner tried to give him smallpox. James failed to contract the disease.

Edward Jenner had discovered a cure for smallpox! Jenner named this inoculation process, “vaccination”, from the Latin name for cow (vacca) and cowpox (vaccinia).

Vaccination at first had many opponents, but eventually its value became firmly established. Today not only has smallpox been nearly wiped out but you can get vaccinated or immunised against many other diseases too! And it is usually performed right from the birth of the child.