The Age of Enlightenment

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  • In the 18th century, smallpox was a major killer. The disease was frequently fatal and usually left any survivors badly scarred and disfigured.
  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu learnt about inoculation in Turkey and introduced it to Britain. Inoculation had arrived in Turkey from China.
  • Montagu discovered that a healthy person could be immunised against smallpox using pus from the sores of someone suffering from a mild form of the disease. 
  • A thread soaked in pus was drawn through a small cut in the person to be inoculated. After a mild reaction, they were immune to smallpox.
  • Unfortunately inoculation sometimes led to full-blown smallpox and death. The fear of smallpox led people to take the risk of inoculation. Doctors could become rich doing inoculations.
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Edward Jenner

  • Edward Jenner was a country doctor in Gloucestershire. He heard that milkmaids didn't get smallpox, but they did catch the much milder cowpox.
  • Using careful scientific methods Jenner investigated and discovered that it was true that people who had had cowpox didn't get smallpox.
  • In 1796 Jenner was ready to test his theory. He took a small boy called James Phipps and injected him with pus from the sores of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid with cowpox. Jenner then injected him with smallpox. James didn't catch the disease.
  • The Latin for cow, vacca, gives us the word vaccination.
  • Smallpox was taken to America by European settlers - Jenner's vaccinations made him famous even amongst the Native Americans, who sent a delegation to England to thank him.
  • In 1802 and 1806 Parliament gave Jenner £10000 and £20000 respectively - equivalent to millions today.
  • Vaccination was made free for infants in 1840 and compulsory in 1853.
  • Some people were opposed to vaccination. Some doctors who gave the older type of inoculation saw it as a threat to their livelihood and many people were worried about giving themselves a disease from cows.
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