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The scourge of the 18th century, smallpox, was nearly eliminated by two forms of inoculation - variolation and vaccination. Here you will see how and why they were both so important in fighting this most dreaded disease.

Smallpox was the scourge of the 18th century. The disease made no distinctions between age and social status. It infected and killed anyone. Before Dr. Edward Jenner's experiments with cowpox, in the late 18th century, people tried to contain the disease by practicing variolation, a form of inoculation.

Variolation was first used by the Chinese. It involved taking samples of smallpox pustules from patients who survived the disease and then infecting healthy patients through either the nose or skin. Most often, the patient contracted a minor case of the disease but not always, which made variolation a very frightening prospect. In the 1720s, traders brought this practice back to the Middle East.

Lady Mary Wortley Montague (1690-1762), wife of the British Ambassador to the Turkish court, observed this practice and was so impressed with the results that she had her son inoculated and became determined to introduce this practice in England. When she returned to England, she wrote about the experiment to the wife of King George I. Voltaire tells us that the Queen, "caused an experiment of it to be made on four criminals sentenced to die, and by that means preserved their lives doubly; for she not only saved them from the gallows, but by means of this artificial small-pox prevented their ever having that distemper in a natural way, with which they would very probably have been attacked one time or other, and might have died of in a more advanced age. The princess being assured of the usefulness of this operation caused her own children to be inoculated. A great part of the kingdom followed her example." (2)

It would not be until the late 18th century when man began to eliminate this disease. Dr. Edward Jenner, in 1796, experimented with the relationship between cowpox and smallpox. Cowpox is the milder, non-fatal form of the disease. He discovered that by inoculating healthy people with cowpox, it made them immune to the smallpox virus. He called this form of inoculation "vaccination" from vacca, Latin for cow, which was safer than variolation.


BBy Creator:Ernest Board (1877—1934) [1] ([2] images.wellcome.ac.uk) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

References

  1. Smallpox: The Triumph over the Most Terrible of the Ministers of Death
    by Nicolau Barquet, MD, and Pere Domingo, MD
  2. On Inoculation
    Letters on England by Voltaire
  3. History of Science
    by Henry Smith Williams