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2. A short history of biomedicine > The power of immunology

The power of immunology

In the 1790s, English physician Edward Jenner was the first to discover a vaccine for smallpox, one of the most dreaded diseases before 1900. Smallpox killed about one-third of those who became infected. Jenner noticed that milkmaids who got cowpox, a non-contagious disease that causes nasty sores or pustules on the hands from touching cows, never became infected with smallpox. He conjectured that the exposure to cowpox somehow bestowed resistance to smallpox infection. He tested this theory by deliberately infecting a young boy with material taken from the cowpox sore of a milkmaid. A few months later, he exposed him to deadly smallpox material. Infecting young boys would surely not pass muster today, but these were different times with different ethical norms. Luckily, the young test patient survived this exposure and 20 more such exposures over the following 25 years, confirming Jenner’s theory. Jenner’s spectacular results led to widespread vaccination, with even President Thomas Jefferson and his family being vaccinated.7


  

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