C. Why Cowpox is Important
Just like humans get smallpox (or at least they did until the disease was eradicated), cows can get a disease called cowpox. Both are caused by related viruses. Humans can catch cowpox which results in red blisters all over the areas that touched the infected cows. The disease is very similar to smallpox, but it is a lot milder.
If you don’t have close contact with cows why should you care about cowpox? As it turns out, cowpox was essential to the development of a smallpox vaccine.
Back in the 1700’s it was very common for people to have pockmarked skin. Survivors of smallpox were left with large scars over their bodies. Edward Jenner , an English doctor, was a very observant man. He apparently liked to look at dairymaids, because he noticed that dairymaids often had smooth skin that was not scarred.
Dr. Jenner held the brilliant theory that dairymaids were protected from getting smallpox because they got the milder disease cowpox. He hypothesized that he could prevent smallpox infection by first infecting people with cowpox.
This is the story I learned in school, but as it turns out, the idea had been floating around already. Not surprisingly, dairymaids were smart as well as beautiful, because they knew they wouldn’t get ugly, pockmarked skin if they had had cowpox. Dr. Jenner received credit for this finding because he was first to act on, and publicly promote the hypothesis.
In an infamous experiment, Dr. Jenner tested his hypothesis by deliberately infecting an 8-year-old orphan with cowpox (I am not condoning this experiment). Once the boy recovered, he then infected the boy with smallpox. In support of Jenner’s hypothesis, the boy did not get smallpox. The paper he wrote describing this first experiment was rejected.
After performing the experiment on several more boys and getting the same result, Dr. Jenner privately published a book detailing his work in 1798. In this book he came up with the term vaccination; vacca is the Latin word for cow and vaccinia is the term for cowpox.
Dr. Jenner was both loved and ridiculed for his work, but he worked tirelessly to support vaccination. Despite controversies, most of Europe was vaccinating against smallpox by the year 1800.
While researching this story, I also discovered that Dr. Jenner built a one-room hut in his family garden and called it the “Temple of Vaccinia.” Working out of the hut, he vaccinated the poor for free.
There is more to the story about the development of the smallpox vaccine, but I will save it for later.
Just be glad that we have cows.