IT STARTED WITH A COW IN 1796

9 January 2021, and no travels to write about. I do have a few quiet “get-aways” planned, but simply spots to read, research and write. And, even though I love home, it is nice to have a change of scenery too.

But do not fear as to my keeping busy. I have outlines for two books to write, and as you know I publish my history articles, “Did You Know That…?”, in each issue of my newspaper, THE WALPOLE CLARION. In fact, I am currently working on four of this year’s articles, and just finished my article for February. My insatiable curiosity and research takes me down many routes, and I get side-tracked along the way on new paths of discovery. Sounds like my “shunpiking” in BLUE BELLE and BLACK BEAUTY, doesn’t it?

With many of my history articles I try to relate them to something current, and that is what happened as my February article formulated in my mind, and then on “electronic paper.” Close friends know I awake with thoughts, and this morning’s thought was to share my article on the development of the smallpox vaccine with you. Lessons to learn, lessons to share, and hopefully positive actions will result, especially from those who are skeptics on science and vaccines. Stay safe, stay well, as always, yours, RAY

Did You Know That…

…the word ‘vaccine’ comes from the Latin word for cow, reflecting the origins of smallpox vaccination? My curiosity research takes me down many different routes. In re-studying the French and Indian Wars, on a map of Rogers Island in the Hudson River I saw marked “Smallpox Hospital.” During the war, Rogers Island (yes, Rogers Rangers), and the adjoining Fort Edward, made up the third largest community in North America after New York City and Boston. The island and fort are situated where the river makes its turn south at a point due south of Lake Champlain. The Lake Champlain Canal now joins the Hudson River at this point.

(for this post I have included a view of Rogers Island and Fort Edwards that you can click to enlarge. Most people probably have not thought about it, but the Hudson River originates in the Adirondack Mountains, finally turning south at this point.)

 

There was no cure for Smallpox in the 1750s when the hospital was established on Rogers Island. The sick were left to die. Smallpox came from Europe to North America in the 1600s. Its introduction to the New World decimated the native population. In 1721, Boston, with a population of 11,000, had more than 6,000 cases. At least 850 people died from the disease. Eventually it was understood transmission occurred from inhalation of the airborne Variola virus, usually from oral or nasal cavity droplets. Transmission was from one person to another, primarily through face-to-face contact, and within a distance of six feet. Sound familiar?

But you ask, what’s with the cow, and how did vaccines begin? See how one thing can lead to another? Centuries ago, someone noticed that nobody became ill with smallpox more than once. Those who had smallpox and survived the high mortality rate were protected for life. Dairymaids were heard to say, “I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox. I shall never have an ugly pockmarked face.” It was commonly believed that dairymaids were in some way protected from smallpox. In May 1796, Edward Jenner found a young dairymaid, Sarah Nelms, who had fresh cowpox lesions on her hands and arms. The cowpox sores were similar to those of smallpox.

Using matter from Nelms’ lesions, he inoculated an 8-year-old boy, James Phipps. At that time, fresh matter would be taken from a ripe pustule (a small blister or pimple) of an infected person and rubbed on another, often through a cut made in the skin. Soon James developed mild fever and discomfort. In nine days he felt cold and had lost his appetite. But, the next day he was much better. Experimenting further, in July 1796, Jenner inoculated the boy again, this time with matter from a fresh smallpox lesion. No disease developed, and Jenner concluded that protection was complete.  

At first, inoculation (vaccination) was accomplished by inserting or rubbing powdered smallpox scabs or fluid from pustules from an infected person into superficial scratches made in the skin of another. Piston syringes for delivering ointments and creams for medical use were used almost 2,000 years ago. In the 19th century, hypodermic syringes were large needles that could rust or snap in two. Glass barrels could be used, but cracked. Tips of these crude syringes leaked.

Before disposable needles were developed in the 1960s, needles needed to be sharpened and sterilized. Those of us growing up in the 1950s and 60s can remember the painful puncture and sting of those needles. But, since then, needles have become thinner and sharper, and you hardly feel a thing, if at all.  

Cowpox served as a natural vaccine until the modern smallpox vaccine emerged in the 19th century. In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched an intensified plan to eradicate smallpox. Widespread immunization was conducted around the world, with the last known natural case in Somalia in 1977. In 1980, WHO declared smallpox eradicated – the only infectious disease to achieve this distinction. And achieved with science and vaccinations.

(Copyright: Ray Boas 2021)

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2 Responses to IT STARTED WITH A COW IN 1796

  1. Peggy Pschirrer says:

    Ray,

    A fascinating reminder of small pox; I still have the evidence on my left arm of that vaccination which probably most do. You may not have had a chance to see new scenery but your excursions to the past are just as satisfying for many of us.

  2. Betty says:

    I know you’ll find this hard to believe, Ray, but I, too, looked up the history of vaccines about a month ago and came across info about smallpox. My article said dating back to 1500’s (possibly even 200 BCE) the Chinese vaccinated their people with ground up smallpox scabs that were then blown into the nostrils of individuals.
    I then found what our vaccines looked like. A small-tined fork that was dipped and jabbed in a circular area on our upper arms. I was a little different in that my doctor gave me my vaccine on the underside of my upper arm. It is not visible unless I really look for it. My siblings had theirs given on their outer arm.
    Thanks for the info about cowpox and smallpox similarities; I had no idea about that!

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