Vaccine. We’re not here to debate whether you like them or not…just to talk about the word. Because it’s absolutely fascinating!
Did you know that vaccine comes directly from vaccinus, Latin for “from cows”? Yep! And if you’ve ever learned the history of the smallpox vaccine, you’ll know why. But in case you don’t, here’s a brief history.
As you no doubt do know, smallpox was a huge killer in centuries past. It wiped out whole towns and rarely left a family unmarked; it killed many, and those who survived it were often left with horrible scars, pockmarks, on their faces and bodies.
Now, it was a known but not understood fact in those centuries that milkmaids were the most beautiful young women…because they did not ever have pockmarks. An English physician named Edward Jenner began to ask why. Why did milkmaids never get smallpox? He spent many years wondering and observing and eventually realized that they all got something else…something called cowpox. And that once they’d contracted and recovered from this mild disease, their whole families could get smallpox and they wouldn’t.
He wondered if cowpox was in fact related to smallpox, and if perhaps getting the one made you immune to the other. It was a theory that others laughed at him for, but he pursued the question…to the point of scraping the pox of milkmaids who had cowpox and introducing it into healthy people, then introducing smallpox to them.
It worked. Those who contracted cowpox were immune to smallpox. And since cowpox was never fatal and smallpox was often fatal, it didn’t take much consideration for him to decide it was far better to get the one than the other. In 1800 he dubbed this treatment a vaccine because he was introducing a disease that came “from cows” into people.
His methods were at first viewed with very mixed opinions, of course, but eventually the smallpox vaccine caught on and has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Happily, today the disease has completely died off, with the last case sited in 1977. And though no other vaccine came directly from cows, the word has stuck and is applied to any process of introducing a weakened strain of a disease into a host so that their bodies can develop antibodies.