Map of the word vaccine in different languages
Most languages use a word derived from (variolae) vaccinae, however, some use their own word, in most cases meaning “graft”.

The Great Smallpox problem

Before injections, existed other methods, the earliest one was inoculation from the Latin in+oculus (in+eye), Czech and Slovak calque this word (očko, eye). However the origin of vaccination has nothing to do with ophthalmology, eye here refers to the eye-shaped bud of a plant in grafting. Many languages (red-colored ones) use words derived from graft.

Nowadays we refer to this technique as variolation, so it is not vaccination. Around the fifteenth century “nasal insufflation” appeared in documents for the first time in China. Basically, they sniffed blisters, or more precisely, powdered smallpox scabs. Some languages, Icelandic, Finnish, and Welsh, preserved this connection with pox. In the eighteenth century, it arrived in Europe thanks to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her stay in Istambul. After two centuries, the girl Rahima Banu became the last know person to be infected with variola major in 1975, and Ali Maow Maalin with variola minor in 1977.

The cows and the orphans

In 1803 Charles IV of Spain sent a boat to America to propagate a new vaccine. Maybe it is not surprising that vaccines are an invention from a couple of centuries ago. We might however wonder how did they manage to despatch it from Europe to America without having freezers to preserve the culture. Francis Xavier de Balmis, King’s physician, shipped a boat from Spain with 22 healthy young orphans and infect one after another along the trip. Edward Jenner discovered it in 1796. He had observed that milkmaids, who were in contact with cowpox (variolae vaccinae “pox of cows”), were likely to be immune to the much more virulent smallpox. His idea was to reproduce this by injecting cowpox pus to induce cross-immunity. It worked and he named its vaccine.

Holidays against cholera

In the summer of 1879 Pasteur, who was researching avian cholera, went on holiday. His assistant, Charles Chamberland, who was in charge of inoculating the chicken, forgot about it and went on holiday as well. When he returned, he discovered that the one-old-month culture made the birds sick but they did not die. The first bacteria modified (involuntarily) made in a lab. Afterward, Pasteur named “vaccine” all weakened germs after Jenner.

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