Depending which tradition you follow, counting the first day of Christmas as Dec. 25 or 26, the eighth-day gift from my true love arrived either yesterday or today. Either way, those humble dairymaids deserve their hour in the spotlight. Maids a-milking are an apt image for the dairy farms and cheese factories here in Wisconsin. They’re the first human gifts in the holiday song, following a long series of birds and some rings. And they have done more for the history of public health than any drummers, pipers, leapers, or dancers I know.
In the 1700s, smallpox killed 400,000 people a year in Europe alone. A third of the survivors went blind. But previous infection by common, innocuous cowpox kept dairymaids safe. Using material from the arm of dairymaid Sarah Nelmes, Dr. Edward Jenner infected a boy with cowpox to protect him from smallpox. It worked.
Since then, vaccination—from vacca, Latin for “cow”—has prevented millions of deaths from measles and other infectious diseases, most of which have nothing to do with cows. “Maids a-milking” faded into folklore with the introduction of milking machines, but their legacy is an ongoing gift to us all.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.