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History of Vaccines Blog


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

September 24, 2014  Karie Youngdahl

On Monday, September 22, in Philadelphia, Matthias J. Schnell, PhD, of the Jefferson Vaccine Center, announced that one of his lab's Ebola virus vaccine candidates was moving into human trials. Funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Department of Defense will allow production of a clinical lot of the vaccine for a Phase 1 trial that could be completed as early as mid-2015 (see Anthony Fauci's testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee). Schnell addressed a gathering of diplomats, scientists, and large audience of students and healthcare professionals at Thomas Jefferson University to discuss the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Ambassadors of Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Guinea spoke about the difficulties of epidemic response in their countries, which are especially complex given the legacies of years of civil unrest there.

Posted in: Rabies, Public Health, Vaccine Research

December 20, 2013  Karie Youngdahl

Our advisor, Thomas Fekete, MD, FCPP, wrote today’s post. Dr. Fekete, a frequent contributor to this site and an active Fellow here at the College, has many responsibilities at Temple University Hospital and School of Medicine: Section Chief, Infectious Diseases; Professor, Medicine; Associate Professor, Microbiology and Immunology; and Executive Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs, Department of Medicine. Twenty-plus years ago, an improved (protein-conjugated) vaccine for Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) was approved and deployed extensively in young children in most developed countries. There was a rapid and sustained drop in serious infections caused by Hib. This reduction of meningitis, pneumonia, blood infections, and so on was dramatic and was accompanied by a major reduction in the formerly common and seemingly innocent carriage of Hib in the throats of children. As a result, even unvaccinated children had protection from Hib via herd immunity.

Posted in: General, Vaccine Research

April 24, 2013  Karie Youngdahl

Day 2 of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases Annual Conference on Vaccine Research included a focus on maternal immunization. Carol J. Baker, MD, of Baylor College of Medicine, opened the session (much to our pleasure!) with the history of evidence of the effectiveness of maternal immunization for preventing disease in newborns via passive transfer of antibodies via placenta or breastmilk. It’s generally accepted that this passive immunity, for some diseases, benefits the baby for about the first six months of life. We haven’t had a chance to look up her references, but she mentioned evidence from 1879 that showed vaccination with vaccinia prevented smallpox in infants, from 1938 showing that maternal immunization with whole-cell pertussis vaccine protected infants from pertussis complications, from 1961 showing vaccine-induced  tetanus immunity transfer from mother to baby in New Guinea, and, finally, from 2011 leading to recommendation of pertussis-containing vaccine and influenza vaccine for pregnant women.

Posted in: Vaccine Research, Pertussis (whooping cough)

April 23, 2013  Karie Youngdahl

We’re spending National Infant Immunization Week in Baltimore at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases Annual Conference on Vaccine Research. It’s three full days of sessions focused on research into existing and new vaccines, as well as research on epidemiologic and public health aspects of infectious diseases and vaccines. One of the main threads at the first day of the conference was disease eradication. DA Henderson, MD, opened the conference with a keynote address on the feat of smallpox eradication through vaccination. He highlighted the unique qualities of smallpox that made it an ideal candidate for eradication and compared some of these factors with parallel characteristics of polio. (Dr. Henderson discussed some of these characteristics in our interview with him.) In every category, polio is a more complicated disease

Posted in: Vaccine Research, Smallpox, Public Health

October 1, 2012  Project Director

Philadelphia is an excellent place to learn about the history of vaccines, and The Wistar Institute, the country’s first independent biomedical research facility, is in great part responsible for this rich history. On Friday, September 28, Wistar Institute President and CEO Russel E. Kaufman, MD, spoke to a group of Wistar Institute friends and donors at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. (Wistar is in the midst of a major construction project and has limited meeting space.) He told that crowd that he wanted us to unlearn some things we think we know about vaccines. In particular, he mentioned that he wanted to draw our attention to the way that scientific advancement truly happens: typically, it doesn’t result from a brilliant insight, followed by a methodical plan of action. Rather, accidents, collaboration, and learning from the context of one’s scientific milieu are important factors that affect scientific progress.

Posted in: Vaccine Research, Rabies

August 1, 2012  Project Director

As visitors to this site know, the development of new methods to cultivate viruses for vaccine use has been an important part of the history of vaccines. From living, complex organisms such as humans and cows, to chicken eggs, to tissue explants, to mammalian cells in culture, various hosts have been used at different stages of technological development to produce vaccine material. Now, recombinant technology, like cell culture technology before it, is changing the way vaccines are made as plants are being programmed to produce antigens for vaccines. Last week, College of Physicians Director and CEO George M. Wohlreich, MD, and I made a visit to a unique research facility in Newark, Delaware, last week to see first-hand the future of vaccines. Fraunhofer USA’s Center for Molecular Biotechnology built this 14,000 square foot plant-based vaccine research and manufacturing facility, funded partly by grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Posted in: Vaccine Research, Influenza

April 17, 2012  Project Director

Eighteen years after the sole manufacturer of adenovirus vaccine announced its discontinuation, adenovirus type 7 and type 4 vaccines are once again available for U.S. military trainees. The adenovirus vaccination program resumed in October 2011, with enlisted soldiers receiving the vaccine during basic training. The re-licensure of the vaccine required significant investment by the U.S. government and long years of testing and regulatory review, during which rates of adenovirus illness in the military rose. The history of the vaccine’s disappearance illustrates the precarious position of some of our lesser-used vaccines.

Posted in: Public Health, Vaccine Research

January 12, 2012  Project Director

On Wednesday, January 11, 2012, Peter J. Hotez, MD, PhD, gave the Maurice Hilleman Pediatric Grand Rounds lecture at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/University of Pennsylvania. Hotez is an internationally recognized expert on tropical diseases and vaccine development and holds the following positions: Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology and Chief of the Section of Pediatric Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine; Endowed Chair of Tropical Pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital; and President, Sabin Vaccine Institute.

Posted in: Public Health, Vaccine Research

December 5, 2011  Karie Youngdahl

It’s National Influenza Vaccination Week, and we’re taking a look back to 1918, the time of the “Spanish” influenza pandemic. When the illness emerged, several useful vaccines had already been developed: smallpox, typhoid fever, and rabies, for example. Scientists and physicians tried many different approaches to develop influenza vaccines during the pandemic even though the cause of influenza was not clear. We look at several of them below.

No other epidemic has claimed as many lives as the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918-1919. Worldwide, at least 40 million people died as this virulent illness swept through city after city (some estimates put total deaths closer to 70 million). Newspaper reports described people dying within hours of first feeling ill. The case fatality rate was highest among adults under age 50, who were, for unknown reasons, particularly vulnerable to serious disease resulting from this strain of influenza.

The first reported cases of an unusual influenza appeared in U.S. Army camps in Kansas in early spring 1918. Later that spring, officials reported large numbers of cases from Europe, though this flu did not seem particularly dangerous. However, influenza became more deadly in late summer. Soon waves of infection moved through towns, nations, and continents, overwhelming hospitals and medical personnel. Because of wartime censorship, reports of influenza were not widely distributed, but news from Spain continued to flow. The name Spanish influenza came from the devastating effects of the flu in Spain in autumn 1918.

Posted in: Historical Medical Library, Influenza, Pneumococcal disease, Vaccine Research