How universities have pioneered 225 years of vaccination: from Smallpox to Covid-19

Lily Martin
Lily Martin
Last Updated: 14 May 2021 • 3 min read

Three-hundred-years ago, infectious diseases such as rubella and mumps contributed to a staggeringly high infant mortality rate - until the vaccination came along. 

Today, vaccinations are considered by experts to be one of the most effective and important health interventions in terms of mortality reduction the world has ever seen.

Universities across the world, but especially in the UK, have paved the way to developing the effectiveness of vaccinations in treating what are now considered preventable diseases. 

Highly contagious infections, such as whooping cough, smallpox, polio and in more recent memory, Covid-19, have and are all being prevented through mass vaccination programmes across the world.

So what is a vaccine and how does it work?

A vaccine is a method of introducing a less severe form of a virus into an uninfected individual. This allows your immune system to learn how to fight the disease and develop the blueprint for how to fight it off in the future, without being overrun. 

It is considered one of the safest ways to teach the immune system how to battle an infectious disease, as well as one of the most successful. Because of this, vaccination has made an enormous impact on global health. 

How did vaccines become a popular way of preventing infectious disease?

Working as an apothecary assistant in the 1790s, Edward Jenner discovered that people who had caught cowpox developed immunity to the more serious disease of smallpox.

Over 50 years previously, aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had witnessed the effectiveness of inoculation in the then Ottoman Empire. She had her children inoculated against smallpox. This was done by using live smallpox virus in the pus taken from a mild blister and scratching it into the skin on the arm or leg. The practise was sometimes effective, but often unhygienic and unsafe.

She promoted the treatment to wider British society, convincing the then Princess of Wales to test inoculation in this form on her daughters. This paved the way for the acceptance of Jenner’s vaccination at the turn of the century.

In 1796, Jenner inoculated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener. The patient was injected with pus from a young milk-maid who had recently had cowpox, a less severe form of smallpox that cows suffered from. He developed immunity to smallpox in the process. In 1807, the Royal College of Physicians confirmed the widespread efficacy of vaccination.

What are universities doing today to develop vaccination programmes?

The University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute - named after Edward Jenner himself - is a world-leading research facility which is spearheading work into the development of vaccines in the world today.

In the last couple of years, the Jenner Institute has helped to develop vaccines with the potential to change people’s lives across the world. These include the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccination, and a pioneering malaria vaccination that is in its trial stages.

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the incredible research and development that occurs in UK universities and their partner institutions in the production of vaccines. A team from Imperial College London was at the forefront of vaccination development at the start of the pandemic, and the University of York will also be hosting the trial of a new Covid-19 vaccine this year.

To find out more information about UK universities at the forefront of scientific research, explore our website!

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Lily Martin
Written By
Lily Martin

Lily is a Content Writer and Editor based in Manchester, UK. She is passionate about travel, literature and higher education.


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