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On May 17, 1749, English country surgeon Dr. Edward Jenner was born. In the 18th century, smallpox was a disease that killed about 20% of victims who contracted it and, if it didn’t kill, it often disfigured or blinded many survivors.

When an epidemic of smallpox hit Jenner’s district, a young milkmaid came to see him about the pustules on her hands. Jenner realized she had a milder form of smallpox disease called cowpox that she had contracted from contact with the cows she handled. He extracted liquid from the young girl’s blisters to test a theory he was formulating: if a mild form of a disease were introduced into a healthy person, it should enable that person to defend itself against the dangerous and more virulent pox form. He extracted a similar sample of liquid from the sores of a patient with smallpox.

When a local farmer asked Jenner to inoculate his son against smallpox, the farmer gave Jenner permission to test his theory. After Jenner inoculated the son with a small cowpox sample, the boy came down with a mild form of cowpox but recovered quickly. Jenner inoculated him again but with the smallpox sample. The boy did not contract smallpox. Jenner’s first inoculation had enabled the boy’s body to fight off the more potent disease.

Jenner was not the first to employ the method of inoculation, nor even of using cowpox as a preventative measure. However, Jenner was a cautious, careful, observant doctor who not only carried out many successful tests on others, he systematically developed, refined, tested, then personally popularized his scientific method. He called his therapy vaccination from the Latin vacca [cow] and vaccinia [cowpox]. It took several years before others believed in his treatment and for it to became accepted. As the number of smallpox deaths dropped sharply in England, Europe and North America adopted Jenner’s vaccination practice on a large scale. Jenner’s vaccine is considered one of the most significant medical advances of all time.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage