With all the media attention on the new crop of "killer viruses," it's easy to forget that some of the most devastating bugs ever to plague humankind have been wiped out.
Consider smallpox. The last laboratory samples sit under lock and key in frozen vials in Atlanta and Russia. But two centuries ago, just before an English country doctor named Edward Jenner stepped forward to attack it, smallpox killed people by the thousands.
Edward Jenner was born in a small town in Gloucestershire in 1749. While studying medicine in London, he was offered the opportunity to be the naturalist on one of Captain Cook's expeditions to the South Seas. He declined the offer because he preferred to practice medicine in the rural district where he had been raised.
And so he did. He loved the Gloucestershire landscape, and he studied its rocks, observed the migrations of its birds, and even built the first aerial balloon seen in those parts.
One thing consistent from Gloucestershire to the South Seas in Dr. Jenner's time was smallpox. It occasionally broke out in intense and lethal epidemics.
Other times it struck people at random. It claimed lives the world over. As with chicken pox today, people who had survived one case of smallpox were immune to it. Those who survived a bout of smallpox, however, were often hideously disfigured for life by pock-like scars.
While Dr. Jenner treated country folk and played violin in the local music club, he wondered about finding the cure for smallpox and the truth that was hidden in a bit of Gloucestershire lore.
The popular belief held that a mild disease called cowpox kept off the dangerous smallpox. Cowpox was a disease of cows, but milkmaids occasionally caught it, and those who did almost never got smallpox.
Dr. Jenner first investigated this in 1775 and within five years he had satisfied himself that cowpox was usually caused by the same virus that caused human smallpox. Human cases of cowpox were scarce in Gloucestershire at the time, however, so Dr. Jenner did not get to test his idea until more than 20 years later.
In 1796, in one of the most famous scenes in medical history, Dr. Jenner took matter from the cowpox lesions on a milkmaid's finger and injected it into 8-year-old James Phipps. James developed symptoms of cowpox: a mild fever and a small lesion.
Six weeks later, Dr. Jenner inoculated James with smallpox. But James did not get the disease. The vaccination had worked.
The combination of an infected milkmaid and a willing patient did not present itself again for two years. Dr. Jenner repeated his experiment in 1798, and he published his success, announcing it to the world.
After overcoming the initial skepticism of the medical establishment, the Royal Jennerian Society was established in 1803 to give proper vaccinations.
In 18 months, the society inoculated 12,000 people in London and cut the city's annual smallpox death rate from more than 2,000 to 622. For the first time, vaccinations were done on a sweeping scale.
The triumph paved the way for immunizations such as the recently approved chicken pox vaccine.
Dr. Jenner died in 1823, having done more than any other person to wipe out one of history's most dreadful diseases.
Smallpox was officially declared eradicated from the world (by WHO) in 1977 when the last case occurred in Somalia and its eradication was a result of mass vaccinations that began with Jenner’s cowpox vaccine. The vaccine has remained basically unchanged today.
© 2013 Main Line Health