The truth about the first vaccine ever created

A world without vaccines would be a dark place. Vaccine access is, indisputably, one of the biggest perks to living in the 21st century, considering that vaccination saves the lives of two-to-three million people every year, and prevents the spread of some of the deadliest viruses in the world. That said, vaccines are also a privilege: not every nation has the same easy access to vaccines enjoyed in wealthy countries. Thus, even today, 1.5 million people across the world still die from vaccine-preventable diseases. 

Nonetheless, it's a profound medical success that once-terrifying diseases such as measles, diptheria, and rubella have nearly been eradicated in the U.S., according to Vox. One disease that no longer exists at all, though, was the first disease that humans were ever inoculated against.

The deadliness of smallpox

You don't hear much about smallpox today. According to the CDC, nobody has died of smallpox since 1978. This is a recent phenomenon, as the the BBC points out, which makes it easy to forget that smallpox was easily one of the deadliest scourges to ever face the human race, ripping through countless populations at a level far greater than the plague, and killing countless people for thousands upon thousands of years. 

Thus, the degree to which vaccines turned the tide cannot be underestimated. And a great deal of the credit for spreading the knowledge about inoculation, as it happens, should go to a 1700s woman named Lady Mary Montagu. 

The great eradication of smallpox

Mary Montagu, according to Time, faced smallpox firsthand. It killed her brother, scarred her face, and left a profound impact on her future. Later, though, when she went to Turkey, she was astonished to witness an old woman who would go to families wherein one person had smallpox, carrying "a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox:" once there, the woman would inject this matter into the other family members with needles. This was, clearly, an early form of inoculation. To be clear, variolation of various sorts had been practiced in a number of ancient societies, but had never gone widespread, and while this old woman remains anonymous, she inspired Mary Montagu to have her own children inoculated, and then — with great effort — to convince others in Great Britain to do the same. 

The next big step forward occurred in 1796, according to History, when an English country doctor named Edward Jenner proved that by taking fluid from a smallpox blister and injecting it into human skin, that person would not only not develop smallpox, but be vaccinated from future outbreaks. It was Jenner's example that turned the tide, inspiring many future scientists to develop new vaccines, and effectively curing such diseases as whooping cough, polio, and measles. That said, while Jenner's breakthrough is always cited, history shouldn't forget Mary Montagu (and the anonymous woman in Turkey, for that matter), for helping build the modern vaccine landscape that has saved so many lives today.