Edward Jenner and the World’s First Vaccine

Before its eradication in 1980, smallpox was one of the reigning kings of deadly diseases. It is estimated that smallpox claimed 400,000 lives a year in 18th-century Europe and an estimated total of 300-500 million in the 20th century. The disease left survivors with extensive, disfiguring scars and left a third of survivors blind. Smallpox was especially fatal among infants, reaching a mortality rate of 80-98%.

Prior to the discovery of vaccination, a procedure called variolation was used to protect individuals against smallpox. Samples of powdered smallpox scabs, or fluid collected from a smallpox pustules, were rubbed or inserted into a puncture made in the skin. Afterwards, the patient would develop a mild strain of the disease, exhibiting  symptoms of fever, vomiting, and scabbing. Once recovered, the patient was then protected from contracting the much more severe strain of smallpox. While the smallpox procedure had a significantly lower mortality rate than contracting smallpox naturally (0.5-2% compared to the usual 20-30%), variolation was not without its drawbacks. The procedure could be easily botched, and even a successful procedure did not always protect an individual from contracting small pox. Worst of all, since patients were contagious during the weeks after variolation, they put others at the risk of infection. Contagious variolated subjects could spark another outbreak of smallpox among an unprotected population.

In 1796, English physician Edward Jenner, intrigued by country folklore that spoke of dairymaids being naturally immune to smallpox after contracting cowpox, formed a hypothesis. Jenner postulated that cowpox could be used to inoculate against smallpox. He put this theory to the test in May of that year, harvesting pus from a cowpox pustule on the hand of a dairymaid named Sarah Nelmes. Next, Jenner inoculated an eight-year old boy named James Phipps with the sample retrieved from Nelmes. Phipps suffered a mild case of cowpox, but quickly recovered to full health. Two months later, Jenner inoculated Phipps with a sample of smallpox and found that his patient did not develop smallpox. This immunity was subsequently retested by exposing Phipps to smallpox once again, but Jenner’s hypothesis held; Phipps was now immune to smallpox. Jenner called the new method of immunization vaccination, derived from the Latin word for cow: vacca.

Jenner was not the only individual to make similar discoveries regarding vaccination. Other persons, such as John Fester, Peter Plett, and Benjamin Jesty, made similar attempts to inoculate subjects against smallpox by way of cowpox. However, Jenner was the first to publish his findings about the new method and present them to the scientific community at large. Because of his publication of his findings and continued advocacy of the process, Jenner cemented his place in history as the “Father of Immunology.”

His findings were not warmly regarded by the medical community as a whole, and they generated widespread popular opposition. Regardless of push-back, the practice of vaccination spread to most European countries by 1800 due to Jenner’s tireless work championing the process. Jenner died in 1823 of a stroke, but his legacy persisted. By 1840, England prohibited the practice of variolation in favor of vaccination; by 1853, England and Wales had made smallpox vaccination compulsory. 

Fears of Mutation

As with all medical advancements, the new method of vaccination generated significant opposition. Political cartoons and engravings were an important tool for Jennerites and anti-vaccinators to color the public’s perception of the controversial new practice. 

Anti-vaccinators argued that the mixing of animal matter into the human body was a direct violation of God’s will. Smallpox was ordained from above, and the man-made vaccine sought to alter the natural law. This presumptuous act of man could only bring forth the moral degradation of the human soul, the sexual perversion of bestiality, and the mutation, both physically and behaviorally, of human-kind. 

"Dr. Moseley's Prophecies" illustration from Robert John Thornton's Vaccinae Vindica (1806)
“Dr. Moseley’s Prophecies” illustration from Robert John Thornton’s Vaccinae Vindica (1806)

The English physician Benjamin Moseley spearheaded the anti-vaccination opposition, relying on the time-honored tradition of fear-mongering. Playing on the public’s fears, Moseley spread false accounts of vaccinated children sprouting cow horns, growing patches of cow hair, and their faces mutating with bovine features. He insisted that mingling animal matter and human matter violated natural law, and would cause humans to degrade into brute-like creatures akin to cows. Moseley wrote, 

Owing to vaccination the British ladies might wander in the fields to receive the embraces of the bull… Can any person say what may be the consequences of introducing the Lues Bovilla, a bestial humour, into the human frame, after a long lapse of years? Who knows, besides, what ideas may rise, in the course of time, from a brutal fever having excited its incongruous impression on the brain? Who knows, also, that the human character may undergo strange mutations from quadruped sympathy; and that some modern Pasiphae may rival the fable of old?

Moseley calls what Jenner had dubbed Variolae Vaccinae, or smallpox of the cow, by a Latin title of his own creation—Lues Bovilla, or Bovine Syphilis. He then follows with an allusion to the Greek myth of Pasiphaë, the Queen of Crete who, under the power of Poseidon’s curse, mates with a bull. Later, Pasiphaë gives birth to the Minotaur⁠—the hybrid offspring of man and bull. Moseley plays on fears of sexual transgression by equating the cowpox vaccine to venereal disease and the vaccination method to bestiality, thereby condemning vaccination as dangerous and immoral. 

Dr. Moseley’s Prophecies is a print from Robert John Thornton’s Vaccinae Vindica, a pro-vaccination treatise that directly countered the arguments of Moseley and others. In the illustration, Moseley’s “modern Pasiphaë” presents her child, a newborn with the body of a cow and a human head, to a recoiling old matron. Thornton mocks Moseley’s invocation of Greek myth by presenting it as utterly ludicrous. Such fanciful ‘prophecies’ are the antithesis to modern science and should remain relegated to myths of old. The portrait on the wall shows a man hanging from the gallows, indicting Moseley as a criminal who shall pay the price for every death that occurs as a result of his fear-mongering.

Another medical authority that spoke out against the practice of vaccination, Dr. William Rowley, claimed to have found tangible proof of Moseley’s claims. In 1805, Rowley published a pamphlet titled “Cow Pox Inoculation No Security Against Small-Pox Infection” which was written in layman’s fashion as an address to the public. Rowley published the cases with the portraits shown below. 

E. Pugh and T. Annie, Cow Poxed, Ox Faced Boy, (1805), Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection
E. Pugh and T. Annie, Cow Pox, Mange, Abcess and Ulcers, (1805), Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

Rowley presented the Ox-Faced Boy and the Cow Mange Girl as proof that Jenner’s vaccine caused a host of diseases. Rowely wrote, 

Various beastly diseases common to cattle have appeared among the human species since the introduction of cowpox–cowpox mange, cowpox abscess, cowpox ulcer, cowpox gangrene, cowpox mortification, and enormous hideous swellings of the face, resembling the countenance of an ox with the eyes distorted and the eyelids forced out of their true situation. Smallpox is a visitation from God, but the cowpox is produced by presumptuous man; the former was what Heaven ordained, the latter is perhaps, a daring violation of our holy religion.

The plate on the left shows a boy with a swollen patch on his cheek, thought to give a bovine expression. The plate on the right shows a girl ridden with ulcers, abcesses, and mange after receiving being vaccination. These accounts, while obviously untrue, reiterated Moseley’s assertion that vaccination caused disease and mutation previously unseen in humans. 

Thomas Woolnoth, Ann Davis, the Cow-poxed, cornuted Old Woman Whose Potrait is in the British Museum, (1806), Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

Again, Thornton refutes Rowley’s claims with a caricature of his own. Ann Davis, the Cow-poxed, cornuted Old Woman, depicts an old woman who has sprouted horns after contracting cowpox. Thornton flips the focus of contagion away from the vulnerable, tainted youth of anti-vaccinator rhetoric to that of an old woman.  The caption denotes this case is “equal in authority to most of Dr. Rowley’s 440 cases.” No such portrait hangs in the British Museum for Ann Davis is an invented person, thereby decrying Rowley’s supposedly truthful cases as fabricated. 

Charles Williams, Vaccination, [1802], Courtesy of Wellcome Collection “Vaccination” served as the frontispiece for F. Smyth Stuart’s anti-vaccination pamphlet titled “30,000l for the Cow-Pox!” penned the description by which this piece was illustrated: “A mighty and horrible monster with the horns of a bull, the hind hoofs of a horse, the jaws of the kraken, the teeth and claws of a tiger, the tail of a cow, all the evils of Pandora’s box in his belly; plague, pestilence, leprosy, purple blotches, fœtid ulcers, and filthy running sores covering his body, and an atmosphere of accumulated disease, pain and death around him, which had made his appearance in the world, and was devouring mankind—especially poor helpless infants, not by scores only, or hundreds, or thousands, but by hundreds of thousands.”

This caricature shows Jenner and associates, all drawn with horns and tails, feeding infants to a monstrous beast. The beast excretes the infants, now similarly corrupted with horns and tails, for Dr. Thornton to shovel them into a dung cart. These two figures are identifiable by the following details: a document reading 10,00[0] pokes from the pocket of the man on the left, alluding to the parliamentary grant of 10,000 Jenner was awarded in 1802. The shoveler rests his foot upon a volume of “Lectures of Botany” a work authored by Robert Thornton, who was an botanist as well as a physician. An obelisk nearby bears the names of several outspoken physicians who published tracts warning of the dangers of vaccinations. These doctors, Benjamin Moseley, Robert Squirrel, William Rowley, John Birch, and George Lipscomb, stand nearby, wielding swords of truth. They stand ready to fight off the ‘evil’ Jennerites to protect their “Temple of Fame” in the background. 

This cartoon carries on the theme of vaccination mutating the once spiritually and physically pure young. Stuart, like Rowley and Moseley, refuted similar false accounts of mutation due to vaccination. 

I have hear of … a child at Peckham, after being inoculated with Cowpox, had its former natural disposition absolutely changed to the brutal, so that it ran upon all fours like a beast, bellowing like a cow, and butting like a bull. 

Together with the illustration, Stuart expresses an anxiety that vaccination poses physical harm to the thousands of “poor helpless infants” as well as making them spiritually unfit for the Kingdom of Heaven, represented by their final destination of the dung cart. The bestial horns and tails each Jennerite bears, symbolizes their demoniac desire to spread corruption has been spread to each helpless babe. 

Ultimately, the print implies that the truth will prevail, and it will be the likes of Moseley and Rowley, not Edward Jenner, that occupy history’s Temple of Fame.

James Gillray, The Cow-Pock, or, the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!, [1802], Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Gillray’s print paints a chaotic scene taking place in an inoculation clinic. The freshly vaccinated men and women recoil in horror as cows burst from their limbs and orifices like tumorous growths. The implication of sexual perversion à la Moseley figures in this print in the form of bestiality and adultery. On the right, a woman births a cow while her husband, positioned behind her, sprouts the horns of a cuckold. Upon the wall of the clinic hangs a portrait of a crowd prostrating themselves before a cow. This is a clear allusion to the Bibilical story of the golden calf. It’s appearance here suggests that Jennerites are guilty of the same act of apostasy as the Isrealites. Having completed rejected their Christian faith, the Jennerites turn to worship the false idol of vaccination. 

Isaac Cruikshank, Vaccination against Small Pox or Mercenary of Merciless spreaders of Death and Devastation driven out of Society!, (1808), Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

The Cruikshank print above takes a different stance on the issue of vaccination. The three doctors on the left, bearing bloody lancets that read “the curse of human kind,” are driven out of society by the vaccinators on the right. Their bitter complaint that these vaccinators will put them out of a job points to their occupation as variolators whose opposition was largely motivated by pecuniary interest. Blinded by their avarice and ignorance, the variolators curse their opponents as they turn their backs on the diseased and dying that surround them. The central figure, presumably Jenner, pleads with his opposed colleagues to “suffer their love of Gain” and bear compassion towards their fellow creatures. Jenner’s lancet reads “the milk of human kindness” and a cherub places a laurel upon his head, declaring him “the preserver of the Human race.” Unlike the prior prints, it is the Jennerites that protect mankind from the threat of contagion; both the peril smallpox poses to the body and the menace the greedy and cruel variolators pose to society. 

Cruikshank’s print touches upon an aspect suspiciously absent from the prior satirical prints: the vested pecuniary interest in variolation many critics of Jenner possessed. Doctors like Moseley and Rowley derived their income from variolation—a technique vaccination now threatened to render obsolete. Fortunately, it was Jenner and his supporters who proved victorious, leading to the complete eradication of smallpox in 1980. The only remaining samples of the smallpox virus are non-naturally occurring and are retained by secure government facilities in the United States and Russia. Unfortunately, the legacy of anti-vaccinators like Moseley and Rowley live on in the present day anti-vaxxer movement. The anti-vaxxer movement has deep roots that extend all the way to the very creation of vaccines. Even so, as the examination of the popular print wars of the past demonstrates, scientific truth that prevails in the long run.