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Princesses, Slaves, and Explosives: The Scandalous Origin of Vaccines

If you have any interest in science and public health, you probably appreciate the hard work and genius that went into the development of vaccines as we know them. But there’s always more to the story. Or in this case, stories. Edward Jenner is credited with developing the smallpox vaccine, but he was far from the first to use the technique of conferring immunity by deliberate infection.

History doesn’t record who first got the idea to expose healthy people to pus from infected patients’ pustules - or how they talked anyone into letting them try it. But the practice seems to have sprung up independently in several places: India, China, West Africa, and elsewhere. The idea was already an old one in 570 AD when people in Europe started calling it “variolation,” from the Latin name for smallpox, Variola. (Later generations used “variolation” and “inoculation” interchangeably; today “inoculation” also includes vaccination.)

Variolation usually meant rubbing pus from a smallpox pustule - a good ripe one, the runnier, the better - into a cut or scratch on a healthy person’s arm, but in China, people just soaked a cotton ball in infected pus and stuck it up their noses. (Ah, the good old days, right?)

The whole idea is counterintuitive and sounds terrifyingly dangerous, so it took centuries and some key travelers, from royalty to slaves, to convince the world that it worked. Read about those baby steps in the slow eradication of smallpox at Gizmodo. -via Digg


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