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Smallpox: The History of The Disease and How The Vaccine Was Invented

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“The Smallpox! The Smallpox! What shall we do with it?” These were the words of John Adams as he contemplated the failure of the Northern American Army’s campaign in Canada in June 1776. Adams however was not the only one to experience the feeling of helplessness in the wake of the scourge that was smallpox; the rest of the nation was suffering from the spread of the deadly smallpox. Once infected with smallpox, the virus incubates for ten to fourteen days. After it matures it can leave a sever rash or many pustules on the top of the skin, and eventually leaves scars when healed. Along with the rash, the victim can experience a high fever, fatigue, severe aches, blindness, and finally death. What could have possibly ended this scourge devastating the land? Vaccines are precautionary immunization shots that have transformed the medical world. First created in 1796 by Edward Jenner, the smallpox vaccine would lead the way into the development of preventative medicines. The development of the immunization practice has created much controversy amongst various groups. Some try to display the benefits of receiving shots in order to boost the immune system, and others shun the practice for disturbing the natural order. However, vaccines would be used and would improve the general public’s health. Other practices would also be introduced like quarantining and the method of inoculation (a strong supporter of which being Cotton Mather), but eventually would be proven obsolete through further research and development of preventative medicines. The introduction of the vaccine in the United States was a turning point in American history because of the results following its arrival like improved public health; an ever lasting debate over medicine and ethics; and the eradication of such viruses like the small-pox virus.

In 1796 an English physician and scientist named Edward Jenner created the first actual vaccine. Jenner had been making observations of milkmaids who had contracted cowpox and then not catch the smallpox virus; this would lead to the development of the first vaccine. Smallpox was identified with diseases with similar symptoms such as chickenpox, measles, and cowpox. Jenner had observed the similar symptoms of the viruses and also recent victims of these afflictions and that they appeared to have developed immunity to the smallpox strain. Through a series of experiments Jenner would develop a weakened strain of the smallpox virus and would administer the “shot” with a bifurcated needle. This discovery would lay the foundation for the field of immunology, a branch of biomedical science that studies the immune system in all organisms. The vaccine was soon introduced into the U.S. and the state of public health would greatly improve. Unfortunately the requirement of receiving a shot for the smallpox virus would not become required until much later in time; in fact the vaccine still saw a good deal of opposition after acquiring a more trust worthy reputation. Even when the practice of immunization was made mandatory in the state of Massachusetts there were those who still opposed it.

The Jacobson v the Common Wealth of Massachusetts case in 1905 is a classic example of the continued opposition of vaccination. The case was more of an extremely controversial debate over whether or not the persecuted could have his personal rights overruled or not than an actual case. Jacobson (the persecuted) refused to receive an adult smallpox vaccination, which had been made mandatory in the state of Massachusetts. He argued that being forced to receive a vaccination against his will was a violation of the fourteenth amendment the right to due process, but the state argued that it has the power to over rule the amendment if it is for the wellbeing of its citizens. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court and fell in favor of the state; to Jacobson’s displeasure, he was forced to pay a fine of five dollars and received the vaccination. As a result of the mandatory statewide vaccination, Massachusetts saw an increase in the overall general health of its population. Though the vaccine had successfully been enforced, this case serves as an example of the un-ending controversy between the mandatory immunizations and the personal belief of the individual citizen.

The smallpox vaccine would eventually be used in a global effort to eradicate the virus strain completely; in fact the last recorded natural contraction of the smallpox strain was in Somalia in 1977. Even though vaccines had been proven to be helpful by examples such as the polio and measles vaccines the idea of having a live virus being injected into one’s self was still a relatively detestable idea. But, through state health laws the vaccination would be mandatorily administered to citizens and the United States’ population would see an exponential improvement in the general health of the population.

Since the development of the first vaccine the smallpox virus has essentially been wiped from the face of the earth except for two samples located at two major disease centers opposite the globe from each other. The United States has also declared in 2000 that it had eradiated measles from the population, and along with the massive receding of measles, cases of polio have drastically dropped since the first vaccine as well. The introduction of the vaccine into early American medicine has controlled the United States in its development as one of the most medically adept nations in the world and was a major factor in the overall health of its citizens.


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Smallpox: the History of the Disease and How the Vaccine Was Invented. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
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