Did you know that pus was once used extensively for vaccinations? We often take for granted how convenient our lives can be in this modern age. A vaccination, for example, is little more these days than the prick of a needle. Imagine for a moment, however, that in order to receive a flu vaccination, your skin was cut open and the snot of a nearby flu-ridden patient was rubbed into the wound.
I’ll give you a second to shudder – I know I did, but that is exactly how vaccines were administered back in the days of Edward Anthony Jenner – the father of immunology. Said to have saved more lives than any other man, Edward Anthony Jenner (17 May 1749 – 26 January 1823) was an English physician and scientist from Berkeley, Gloucestershire, who was the pioneer of smallpox vaccine.
In the 18th century, smallpox was considered to be the most deadly and persistent human pathogenic disease. The main treatment involved scratching the vein of a healthy person and pressing a small amount of pus, taken from a smallpox pustule, into the wound. The risk of the treatment (and try not to be -too- surprised by this) was that the patient often contracted smallpox and died.
In 1788, when an outbreak of smallpox swept through his town, Jenner observed that his patients who worked with cattle, such as milkmaids and farmers, didn’t seem to contract smallpox. Investigating further, he discovered that those patients had all, at one time, suffered from a much milder disease called cowpox.
In an experiment that would today be considered grievously unethical, Jenner used an eight year old boy named James Phipps to test his new theory. James was the son of Jenner’s gardener, and I personally hope that poor Phipps, Sr. got an extensive raise for his willingness to cooperate with such an unreasonably risky request from his employer.
Whatever his reasons, Mr. Phipps agreed, and after making two cuts in James’ arm, Jenner infected the boy with pus scraped from the cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom (whose hide now hangs on the wall of the St George’s medical school library). The boy had a slight fever for a few days, but recovered swiftly. A few weeks later, Jenner repeated the process using smallpox pus, and the incredibly lucky James Phipps remained healthy. Thus Jenner’s vaccination treatment for smallpox was born.
In 1979, the World Health Organization declared smallpox an eradicated disease. However, before you get too comfortable, some smallpox pus samples still remain in laboratories in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia and State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR in Koltsovo, Russia.