Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Before the advent of a smallpox vaccine, the mortality of smallpox was high, like 20-30%. The appearance of the disease was horrific, and survivors were left with disfiguring scars they carried the rest of their lives.

Many forms of inoculation (also called variolation) were used in the centuries before an official vaccine was developed. 

In China during the Ming Dynasty, powdered smallpox scabs were blown up the noses of the healthy. Patients would generally develop a mild case of the disease and from then on were immune to it. The technique had a 0.5% mortality rate.

In the latter half of the 17th century, variolation was practiced by physicians in Turkey, Persia, and Africa. The Turkish method of smallpox inoculation consisted of ripping four or five veins with a large needle, applying pus from the sores of a smallpox victim, then covering the site with a ‘hollow bit of shell’ and binding them up.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British Ambassador to Ottoman Constantinople, introduced the Turkish method of inoculation to Great Britain, which the royal family used in the epidemic of 1721. 

The practice of variolation had been known in Boston since 1706, when Cotton Mather (of Salem witch trial fame) discovered that his slave Onesimus had been inoculated in Africa and that many slaves imported to Boston had also received inoculations. But the method wasn’t employed in North America until the epidemic of 1721.

In 1757, an 8-year-old boy named Edward Jenner was inoculated with smallpox in Gloucester. He developed a mild case of smallpox and was subsequently immune to the disease. Edward Jenner then grew up to be the man who developed the first Smallpox vaccine. I'll discuss how that came about next week.


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