History of Vaccines Blog


May 6, 2019  Robert Hicks

In recent years, we have posted a blog about survivals of early smallpox scabs in archival collections today (see “A Scab Story”), and in a follow-up blog, “A Scab Story Bites Back,” we described the discovery of several 19th century smallpox vaccination kits in our museum collection. These kits showed visible residue on glass slides from lymph taken from pustules on infected human bodies and desiccated scab material. Since the last report, we have begun to correspond with other European and American collections with early vaccination tools that could be assayed for residue. Our own kits were examined first by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and then via the World Health Organization to Canada’s McMaster University. At this writing, the analysis of the kits continues: exciting results will be reported in “Revenge of the Scab Story,” forthcoming. Read more...

Posted in: General, Smallpox

March 10, 2019  Rene F. Najera

Frontline from PBS published a short video on YouTube about the history of mass immunization in the United States. General George Washington ordered his troops to be inoculated against smallpox, even forcing some of them to get the inoculation (variolation). This assured that the Continental Army would remain smallpox-free at a time when the disease was causing a lot of disease and death, and leading to the defeat of the British troops during the War for Independence. Read more...

Posted in: Historical Medical Library, Smallpox

February 3, 2019  Rene F. Najera

It's Black History Month, 2019, and we will be presenting to you some blog posts narrating the contributions of African Americans to the history of vaccines in the United States and elsewhere. We begin the month with an account of Onesimus, an African slave taken to Boston and put in the services of Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister. Onesimus, like other slaves, had received variolation back home. His account of what happened to people receiving variolation in Africa prompted Cotton Mather to push for variolation in New England in order to save people from death by smallpox during the epidemics that periodically hit when smallpox was brought into Boston. Read more...

Posted in: General, Smallpox

March 21, 2017  Karie Youngdahl

I'm happy to announce that The College of Physicians is hosting a lecture on April 3, 2017, that will be of great interest to History of Vaccines readers. This lecture, by Stockton University professor and History of Vaccines advisor Lisa Rosner, PhD, marks the 300th anniversary of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's well-known letter to an English friend about smallpox inoculation as practiced in Turkey. With her "Letter to a Friend," she became one of the earliest inoculation advocates, and she would be joined over the next 300 years by the celebrities and scientists, pop culture icons and heads of state, patients and game developers, who advocated for, or criticized, inoculation and vaccination. This talk will explore this colorful history of vaccine advocacy from Lady Mary to The Pox Hunter, a digital strategy game set in Benjamin Rush's Philadelphia. Read more...

Posted in: General, Smallpox

March 6, 2017  Karie Youngdahl

“What if possibly infectious samples of smallpox still exist . . . in museums and libraries?” That was the question posed in “A Scab Story,” a blog posted here on August 4, 2014. The essay reviews the few examples of 19th century scabs that have appeared in library collections (and a few other places) over the past dozen years and argued that they might prove to be a scientific boon because we lack historical examples of smallpox and smallpox vaccine material. The blog concludes by suggesting how museum and library employees ought to handle any such material they find in their collections, including conveying old scabs to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for analysis. The essay reminded readers, “And don’t forget to blog about it.” Admittedly, one of us (Robert D. Hicks) fantasized about finding an ancient scab from an early vaccination in the collections of the Mütter Museum and Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia that would yield a crucial insight about the origin of the smallpox vaccine. One should always be careful about what one wishes for. In April, 2016, while the rest of the museum staff was away on a field trip, Robert took a new employee into collections storage for a tour. While inspecting phlebotomy tools, the new employee called attention to a small, pretty, red leather roll-up case. Robert saw a handwritten label on it which read, “vaccination kit.” Not having noticed it before, he removed it (with nitrile-gloved hands) and examined its components: a tiny lancet, two square glass plates, and a tiny tin box with a sliding lid. He opened the lid and beheld crumbled scabs which had the appearance of tiny fragments of topaz. At once, he recognized how the kit was intended for use because he had researched vaccination practices during the American Civil War (see “Spurious Vaccination in the Civil War”). Read more...

Posted in: Smallpox, Vaccine Research

February 10, 2017  Karie Youngdahl

Today's blog post is by History of Vaccines intern Carley Roche. The anti-vaccination movement has had some ardent supporters since its inception. One of the most prominent figures of this movement was Lora Cornelia Little. Little was born in a log house on March 26, 1856, in Waterville, Minnesota Territory. Growing up she was introduced to ideas of water-cure and phrenology by reading journals and her father’s books. She married an engineer named Elijah Little, and together they had one child, a son named Kenneth Marion Little. In April 1896, just three months after Kenneth’s seventh birthday, he died. Lora blamed his death on the smallpox vaccine. But, as the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia notes, “…Mrs. Little’s son, Kenneth, was vaccinated in September 1895 and died in April 1896. Between the time of inoculation and death, he suffered recurrent ear and throat infections, measles and diphtheria. The latter was the ultimate cause of his death. Mrs. Little pointed to ‘the artificial pollution of the blood,’ [that] had fatally weakened his constitution and left him at the mercy of the subsequent infections.” Her lifelong crusade against vaccines began with this belief that being vaccinated had made Kenneth susceptible to the illness that followed. Read more...

Posted in: Historical Medical Library, Smallpox

December 8, 2016  Karie Youngdahl

Join us December 13 at 6:30pm for an illustrated talk about smallpox vaccination in the American Civil War. Several smallpox epidemics swept through the Confederate states during the war. Southerners blamed the outbreaks on the northern states. Confederate doctors attempted to prevent smallpox spread by vaccinating soldiers, but then discovered that some vaccinations were ineffective (“spurious”) and spread other diseases, particularly syphilis. Director of the Mütter Museum and Historical Medical Library, and William Maul Measey Chair for the History of Medicine, Robert Hicks, PhD, will discuss how the Confederacy managed vaccinations and tried to address the problem of spurious vaccination. His illustrated talk includes the use of children on plantations as a source of vaccine and allegations of vaccination poisoning in the conflict’s only war crimes trial. Read more...

Posted in: Smallpox

October 26, 2016  carleyroche

During the month of October, we see pumpkins, black cats, witches, and skeletons everywhere we turn. These images remind us of costumed children, scary movies, and tasty treats. But there is a bigger history behind these images, specifically the skeleton. A symbol for death and the afterlife, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, the skeleton holds a powerful meaning across many diverse cultures. It was also once adopted by the 19th-century anti-vaccination movement to scare people, especially parents, into forgoing smallpox vaccination. Below are a few examples of skeletal images used by Victorian Era anti-vaccinators. Read more...

Posted in: Historical Medical Library, Smallpox

August 31, 2016  Karie Youngdahl

Donald A. Henderson, MD, MPH, died on August 21, 2016, at age 87. Henderson was a crucial figure in the eradication of smallpox. Posted to the World Health Organization in 1966 as a CDC employee, he developed the program that would, just a little more than 10 years later, eradicate a disease that killed more than 30% of those it infected, and that was responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century alone.  Henderson’s key insights into smallpox eradication came from his training by Alexander Langmuir as one of the early recruits of the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, as well as from his public health education at Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health. Though he launched the WHO’s program with the goal of using mass vaccination as the main tool to eradicate smallpox, his use of rigorous surveillance and reporting techniques, learned in these public health contexts, laid the groundwork for a shift in strategy that successfully employed containment, or ring, vaccination to halt the spread of outbreaks.  Read more...

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August 4, 2014  Karie Youngdahl

Today's blog post is by Robert D. Hicks, PhD, Director, Mütter Museum/Historical Medical Library, William Maul Measey Chair for the History of Medicine, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The World Health Organization has been debating the future of smallpox. The debate concerns what to do with existing stocks of infectious smallpox virus given its eradication from the planet decades ago, one of the most significant public health achievements ever. Assuming a method could be devised to dispose of these smallpox stocks safely to avoid their being used as a terrorist weapon, can we be assured that all of it has been destroyed? Is destruction a good thing, since future technologies may be able to elicit from virus samples answers to fundamental questions about epidemic diseases, their origins, evolution, and treatment? What if possibly infectious samples of smallpox still exist . . . in museums and libraries? Read more...

Posted in: Smallpox, Historical Medical Library