“Vaccine” comes from vacca, Latin for “cow.” Edward Jenner proved in the 1790s that pus from relatively harmless cowpox blisters—common among dairymaids—protected humans against smallpox. Jenner’s vaccination built on a riskier traditional practice in Asia and Africa called inoculation (from inoculatus, “to graft or implant”). An Englishwoman and an African man introduced inoculation into Europe and North America respectively, almost exactly 300 years ago.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lost a brother to smallpox, and the disease scarred her face. Living in Constantinople while her husband was British ambassador, she watched old Turkish women scratch smallpox pus into healthy arms or legs. The resulting infection was usually mild instead of deadly or disfiguring. Back in England during an epidemic, she had her daughter inoculated publicly in April 1721. The practice spread.
That same April, smallpox came by ship to Boston, Massachusetts. An enslaved West African named Onesimus told his master, Cotton Mather, that he knew how to prevent the disease. The operation he described “had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it.” Bostonians resisted vehemently. More than half the city’s residents contracted smallpox in 1721-22; one in seven patients died. But of the 242 who were inoculated, all but six survived.
Jenner holds an important place in the development of vaccines. So should the traditional healers of Asia and Africa, and the white woman and the black man who brought their methods to the West.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.