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History of Vaccines Blog


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.

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”).

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.

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.

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.

Posted in: Historical Medical Library, Smallpox

September 27, 2016  Karie Youngdahl

Carley Roche, an intern here at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, wrote today's blog post. In December 1924 the city of Philadelphia experienced an uptick in the incidence of smallpox with 9 new cases of the disease. While there had been a few reported cases earlier in the year, it soon became apparent in early January 1925 that the December outbreak might be more severe than the others, as the first smallpox death occurred in Philadelphia in more than 12 years. The Department of Public Health would spend the next 6 months quarantining and vaccinating citizens of the city in order to prevent a massive outbreak of smallpox beyond the city limits.

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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. 

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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?

Posted in: Historical Medical Library, Smallpox

March 10, 2014  Karie Youngdahl

I’ve been corresponding with a reader who is interested in HA Martin’s On Animal Vaccination, an 1877 publication by the physician who is widely credited with introducing and producing non-humanized smallpox vaccine in the United States. Martin obtained vaccine from the famed Beaugency vaccine line, begun in the 1860s with naturally occurring cowpox in a French cow. The French Académie du Médicine cultivated the vaccine in serial transmission in cows and avoided harvesting any vaccine from humans.

Posted in: Smallpox, Historical Medical Library

September 16, 2013  Karie Youngdahl

As I was reading Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, I was interested to find a description of an illness that most likely was smallpox. The incident involves Esther Summerson, the self-sacrificing heroine. At one point in the book, she performs the kind of act of charity we so often read about in novels from the era – a kind woman ministering to the poor and ill. She walks into a house to which her maid has brought her and notices an unpleasant fact.  “The place … had an unhealthy and a very peculiar smell.” Many reminiscences of smallpox mention the characteristic smell of the disease. In “The Demon in the Freezer,” Richard Preston quotes D.A. Henderson, director of the WHO’s Smallpox Eradication Programme: “My God, they talk about the odor of smallpox. It is an odd smell, not like anything else…It's a sickly odor, like rotting flesh, but it's not decay, because the skin remains sealed and the pus isn't leaking out….That smell is one of the mysteries of smallpox. No one knows what it is. " A boy in the house is feverish, and Esther and the maid tend to him.

Posted in: Smallpox