A Look Back at Vaccines

Mary Wortley Montague public domain

As various strains of the flu claim lives this week, I take a look back at a time before vaccines, when people tried to protect themselves from deadly epidemics with desperate measures.  The passage below is an excerpt from my book, Jonas Salk: The Battle Against Polio.  The passage refers not to polio, but to smallpox.  The idea of induced immunity took hold among some.  Variolation–deliberately infecting the healthy with smallpox–was one early practice.  A diplomat’s wife, Lady Mary Wortley, introduced the practice to Europe.

Lady Wortley’s practice was not that far removed from the development of the polio vaccine.  In the twentieth century, two varieties became available.  One, the Salk vaccine, introduced a killed virus into a healthy person.  The other, the Sabin vaccine, introduced a weakened, live virus.  Each of these vaccines carried risks, though the risks were not as great as they had been with variolation.

  What follows is a brief description of Lady Mary Wortley’s experience with variolation.

In 1716 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu accompanied her husband, Edward, to Istanbul, where he became Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In Istanbul Lady learned about variolation. Lady Mary’s brother had died from smallpox and she had survived the disease. Although little was understood about smallpox, one thing was certain: once people survived the disease, they would never catch it again. This was the wisdom behind variolation.

The Ottomans dealt with smallpox by taking a small bit of dried material from the scab of someone who was infected with a mild case of the disease. The dried material would be blown into the nostrils of a healthy person. The idea was to make the healthy person come down with a mild case of smallpox and gain immunity from the disease for life. This was the Ottoman version of variolation.

When Lady Mary brought the practice to Europe, it was a little different. In Europe, material would be scraped from a smallpox scab on someone who was actively suffering from the disease. This material would then be scraped into the skin of a healthy person. That person, it was hoped, would come down with a mild form of smallpox, survive, and then have immunity for life.

Variolation was widely used, especially among the powerful. Though many did not trust the procedure, it was the only way to induce immunity from smallpox until Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine. Variolation was largely abandoned after Jenner’s vaccine because it was possible to come down with severe cases of smallpox as a result of the procedure. There were deaths from variolation.

A. G. Moore

February 5, 2018

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s