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Ivory and box wood vaccinator, Europe, 1701-1800

The history of smallpox vaccination does not necessarily start with Edward Jenner’s (1749-1823) introduction of a cowpox vaccine in 1798. A procedure known as ‘variolation’ was devised in China about a thousand years ago and then spread westwards to Turkey and a number of other Islamic countries. In variolation, material from smallpox pustules was given to an uninfected person by blowing dried smallpox scabs into their nose in the expectation that they would contract a milder form of the disease and so be protected from more dangerous infections. This method was brought to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montague (1689-1762) in 1720. It was made illegal in the United Kingdom in 1840 as it could spread the disease further while also transmitting other diseases such as syphilis.

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Glossary: vaccination

The introduction of vaccine into the body for the purpose of inducing immunity. Coined originally to apply to the injection of smallpox vaccine, the term has come to mean any immunising procedure in which vaccine is injected.

Glossary: cowpox

Viral infection of cows' udders, transmitted to humans by direct contact, causing very mild symptoms similar to smallpox.

Glossary: vaccinator

No description.

Glossary: syphilis

A sexually transmitted infection resulting in the formation of lesions throughout the body.

Glossary: smallpox

Smallpox is an infectious virus unique to humans. It results in a characteristic skin rash and fluid-filled blisters. After successful vaccination campaigns throughout the 1800s and 1900s, the World Health Organisation certified the eradication of smallpox in 1979. Smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been completely wiped out.

Glossary: vaccine

A substance given to humans or animals to improve immunity from disease. A vaccine can sometimes contain a small amount of bacteria that is designed to stimulate the body's reaction to that particular disease. The first vaccine was developed in 1796 by Edward Jenner to prevent smallpox.