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The History of Immunisation

Aug 31, 2021

What is immunisation?

Immunisation is a way of protecting ourselves against serious, often life-threatening diseases by exposing people to a weakened version of the disease so that their body builds up immunity. This helps lower the instances of disease or even contribute to the eradication of the disease entirely. Though the idea of inoculation and vaccination seem like the inventions of modern science and healthcare, the practices have been around for centuries.

Ancient Immunisation

As early as 429 BCE the Greek historian Thucydides noted that those who contracted smallpox and survived would not catch it again even if they were directly exposed. This is the earliest written record we have of an understanding of the concept of acquired immunity.

It wasn’t until c. 900s in China that the practice of purposeful immunisation started to emerge. Evidence shows that Buddhist monks would often drink snake venom in an attempt to build up an immunity to the bites of those snakes. It is around this time that we also start to see a practice called variolation emerge.  This was a practice whereby a scratch in the skin would be smeared with tissue or lymph from the blister of a person with cowpox, a disease similar to smallpox, only less virulent. This was done as it was known that those who had previously had cowpox would not catch smallpox.

The early days of vaccination

Variolation became popular in many parts of the world, particularly between the 14th and 17th century. The aim was to prevent smallpox in healthy people by exposing them either by putting tissue or lymph under the skin, or creating a powder to snuff. Smallpox was one of the most prolific killers throughout the middle ages, even into the Victorian era, so it is unsurprising that early immunisation efforts were centred around it. In 1721 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an English aristocrat, brought the idea back to England with her from Constantinople. Though variolation occasionally caused a full blown infection in a patient, or even occasionally death, the rates of illness were considerably lower in the populations that practised it.

By 1768 English doctor Edward Jenner started to experiment with the idea of inoculating healthy patients with cowpox to try and create immunity from the more deadly smallpox. His first patient was the eight year old son of his gardener, a boy named James Phipps. He inoculated the boy in both arms by taking lymph from the blisters of a milkmaid with cowpox, and though it produced a fever and some discomfort, no full-blown infection occurred. This proved that inoculation caused immunity, and his hypothesis was then successfully tested on a further 23 patients.

It hardly seems surprising to us that the popularity of inoculation spread quickly. Support for vaccination and for Jenner spread throughout both the UK and Europe, and even to the US. However opposition to vaccination is not something that is new to our modern age.


Jenner’s ideas were met with immediate public criticism from various groups including those with sanitary, religious, scientific and political concerns. Even the actual vaccination itself cause fear as it involved someone scoring the flesh of the person’s arm and inserting lymph from a blister of a person who had been vaccinated a week earlier. Unsurprisingly this was frightening for children and adults alike. When vaccination became compulsory this ire only increased, as many people felt that forcing it on them was done so at the expense of their personal liberty. The general distrust of medicine at the time did not help matters, as there were many that did not believe Jenner’s theory about how disease was transmitted, and still believed that it was caused by miasma in the air.

The Leicester demonstration march of 1885 marked a peak in this show of opposition. It was one of the most notorious anti-vaccination marches in British history, seeing 80,000-100,000 people march with banners, a child sized coffin and an effigy of Jenner. Though the debate and reasoning has changed, there are many who still oppose vaccination to this day.


Since the development of the first vaccines by Jenner, vaccinations have continued to be developed, vastly lowering the instances of some of the world’s former most dangerous illnesses, such as polio. There are even instances where vaccination has helped lead to a global eradication of diseases, such as smallpox.

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