Vaccination: A Mythical History ~ by Roman Bystrianyk and Suzanne Humphries MD

With the approaching flu season and the enthusiastic calls to use the flu vaccine, you might be wondering where the idea of vaccination got its start. Where did the idea of injecting whole or bits of microbes and other substances into people in an attempt to provide protection against contagious disease begin?

Many medical and history books present a simple tale of the origin of vaccination. Most present the same basic tale of the brilliant observation of a simple country doctor and his courage in attempting to thwart a deadly and frightening disease of that time – smallpox, or as it was often called the speckled monster. In a recent and popular book, The Panic Virus, the author reiterates this classic tale.

    In 1796, Jenner enlisted a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes and an eight-year old boy named James Phipps to test his theory. Jenner transferred pus from Nelmes’s cowpox blisters onto incisions he’d made in Phipps’s hands. The boy came down with a slight fever, but nothing more. Later, Jenner gave Phipps a standard smallpox inoculation – which should have resulted in a full-blown, albeit mild, case of the disease. Nothing happened. Jenner tried inoculating Phipps with smallpox once more; again, nothing. [1]

Edward Jenner’s idea eventually became known as vaccination, which is derived from the Latin word for cow – vacca. It was originally referred to as cowpoxing, but eventually the term vaccination was adopted. As the story goes, with this invention in place, smallpox would be tamed and the world would be freed from the terror of the disease.

Such is the stuff of legends. The story is not unlike the classic Greek legends of Theseus defeating the child-devouring Minotaur, or Perseus beheading the deadly snake-headed Medusa, or many other classic stories of the brave hero defeating a deadly enemy. The Jenner legend has been reduced to a simple and memorable story of a hero defeating the deadly enemy, smallpox. Authors claim that with vaccination in place, “billions of lives” have been saved.[2]

But legendary heroes, particularly those that are used to support a belief, achieve an iconic status while any unsavory aspects about the hero and the story are ignored or forgotten. Mythical tales are designed to evoke a positive emotional response to influence societal thinking.

The tale of defeating smallpox begins well before the story of our hero. It begins with the concept of using small amounts of smallpox pus and scratching it into the arms of healthy people. This idea was introduced to the Western world by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1717. She had returned from the Ottoman Empire with knowledge of the practice of inoculation against smallpox, known as variolation. This type of inoculation was simply a matter of infecting a person with smallpox at a time and in a setting of his choosing. The idea behind inoculation was that, in a controlled setting, people would do better against the disease than if they contracted it at some possibly less desirable time and place in the future.

The idea was embraced by the medical profession and enthusiastically practiced. But because of the complexity and danger involved, inoculation remained an operation that could only be afforded by the wealthy.[3] The procedure did often help protect the individual that was inoculated, but there was still an estimated 2-5% that died as a result.[4,5] Still, this was an improvement compared to a 20-25% mortality rate in those that had naturally contracted smallpox during an epidemic.[6] But, was the difference in mortality due to inoculation alone? Or could it have had something to do with the fact that the wealthy had better access to more nutritious food and a cleaner environment than the majority of society?

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