Gloved hands of a medical professional placing the needle of a syringe into a vile that contains the vaccine.

The History, Development, and Evolution of the World’s Vaccines

The COVID-19 vaccine‘s widespread inoculation gives the world a chance to expect normalcy. 

For over a year, the public waited for news as the death rates rose. It’s not an easy mission to ensure the vaccine is as effective as it needs to be.

Vaccines protect the human race from various diseases.

The very first vaccine introduced a learning curve that led scientists, physicians, and virologists to continue to produce the most effective and safest version of the vaccine.

From the early 10th century, smallpox was the dominant disease that affect the majority of the population. Even in a time without medical machinery, there were certain discoveries in disease prevention that set the pace for the future.

In the 1500s, China and India found ways of preventing the spread of smallpox infections.

The first method involved grinding smallpox scabs from the infected and blowing the crushed matter into a nostril, the right nostril for boys and the left for girls.

The second method paved the way for modern vaccinations. It involved variolation, scratching the matter from a smallpox sore into the skin. Turkey and Africa soon practiced this method, then Europe and the Americas.

Although this was recorded in the 1500s, it’s speculated that this method has been around since 200 BCE.

Here are the origin stories of the vaccines we know today.

Edward Jenner – Smallpox Vaccine (1796)

A depiction of Edward Jenner in his medical office, adminstering the cowpox variolation to a child, whose mother is helping to hold him still.
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What is Smallpox?

Smallpox, a life-threatening and contagious disease, causes pus-filled blisters to form all over the body.

It dates to 10,000 BCE when the first agricultural settlements happened in northeastern Africa, but its origin in Africa remains unknown. How it spread might have been through Egyptian merchants heading to India.

The Vaccine

Edward Jenner, known as the “Father of Vaccines”, developed an approach to vaccinations that proved the effectiveness of variolation.

His hypothesis states that the cowpox infection could protect a human from smallpox.

Although an uncommon illness in cattle, cowpox is the animal variant of smallpox. It spread to humans through cow sores: blisters formed in dairy workers’ hands when they handled the infected cow.

In May 1796, Jenner took matter from a milkmaid’s blister after she became infected with cowpox. He scratched the matter onto the arm of an eight-year-old boy. The boy suffered a reaction and felt ill for a few days, but fully recovered.

In July 1796, Jenner scratched the same eight-year-old boy’s arm with matter from a fresh smallpox sore. The boy remained healthy and showed no signs of infection. This became the world’s first vaccination.

However, many saw using a diseased animal to cure humans as disgusting and ungodly. This led to Jenner being ridiculed, but the proven advantages and protection offered by the vaccine brought a widespread demand for it.

Since 1977, the vaccine is no longer recommended because smallpox is considered eradicated.

Louis Pasteur – Anthrax and Rabbies Vaccines

Louis Pasteur, depicted as holding the flask that contained the rabid rabbit's spinal cord, leading to his discovery of the vaccines.
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What is Anthrax?

Anthrax, rare but serious, is a disease that mainly infects animals. Humans contracted the diseases through contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products. There isn’t any evidence that it’s contagious, but there’s the possibility that skin lesions are caused by direct contact.

Although a rare disease, it’s an illness of great concern. In the United States, bioterrorism attacks involve weaponizing anthrax.

The Vaccine (1881)

Louis Pasteur, a French biologist, realized that weakened strands of viruses could combat diseases.

His early work involved chickens.

Before going on vacation, he left cultures of the virus in his lab to record the fatal progression of fowl cholera. His assistant was tasked with injecting the chickens with fresh cultures before leaving. The assistant forgot and only did so when he returned from vacation.

The chickens, with the delayed injection of the cultures, didn’t contract fowl cholera. After this discovery, Pasteur injected the chickens with a fresh strain and they remained uninfected.

The major factor in this discovery was that oxygen weakened the virus and, thus came the first laboratory vaccine.

With that discovery, Pasteur focused on the disease mainly affecting cattle at the time: anthrax. Many attempts to develop a vaccine by other scientists failed. Methods to kill or weaken the virus only resulted in more fatalities.

Pasteur discovered that anthrax bacillus can’t be easily weakened by only oxygen. More spores would only form.

In 1881, he found that growing spores at 42˚C / 180˚F made them unable to produce spores. They needed heat and oxygen to be artificially weakened, not killed.

The Public Experiment

In his famed public experiment, Pasteur used two groups of animals. He vaccinated the first group, but not the second. After two weeks, he injected all the animals with live anthrax cultures. Those vaccinated survived and those unvaccinated died or were dying in front of an audience.

The results proved that Pasteur’s contribution revolutionized the work on combatting infectious diseases.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a viral but preventable disease that’s transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal.

It affects the animal’s central nervous system, resulting in the disease targeting the brain before leading to its inevitable death.

For humans, it attacks the brain and spinal cord, inflaming them. Once it reaches the spinal cord, the result is often death. A human’s life expectancy after the symptom’s appearance is seven days.

The Vaccine (1855)

There were difficulties in studying the virus, how the infection was introduced into the bodies, and the signs of the disease varied.

Pasteur’s first step involved selecting the most lethal, fact-acting strain of the virus. Then, he injected that virus into the rabbit’s brain.

His protégé, Emile Roux, kept a suspended piece of the rabbit’s infected spinal cord in a flash.

Pasteur determined that drying the infected tissue weakened the virus, which was proven in his experiments on dogs with weakened infections. These experiments were dangerous because the samples were taken from rabid animals.

After the success of the dogs, he started inoculating humans. All human trials were successful, except for one because the vaccine was administered too late.

In July 1885, Pasteur administered the vaccine to a nine-year-old boy after a rabid dog attacked him. The boy survived and avoided contracting a fatal infection.

This success worked in Pasteur’s favor because he wasn’t a licensed physician. If the vaccine failed, he would have faced prosecution. With the legalities forgotten, he became a national hero.

Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering – PertuVaccine

Two separate black and white images of Kendrick and Elderling, side by side, the two scientists that created the whooping cough vaccine.
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What is Pertussis?

Also known as ‘Whooping Cough’, pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory disease that affects the lungs and airway.

It caused uncontrollable and violent coughing, making it hard to breathe. The disease primarily infects babies and young children by making them ill.

In the early 1900s, it was the deadliest childhood disease.

The Vaccine

Children faced a high infection rate in the 1930s, coupled with America suffering through the Great Depression.

Two former schoolteachers-turned-scientists, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering, asked infected children to cough on dishes prepared with agar gel. The gel trapped tiny specks of bacteria.

Kendrick and Eldering studied the cultures in every possible way. With scientific funding scarce, they used state resources and local and federal funding.

They spent years in their lab and provided standardized diagnostic tools and vaccines made of the weakened bacterial strain.

Moreover, they had the first successful controlled clinical trial and participated internationally to standardize and dispense the vaccine.

This proved to be a promising path for ground-breaking results.

Emil Von Behring – Diphtheria and Tetanus Vaccines

Emile Von Behring pictured with his assistant, with their lab equipment and guinea pigs on the table, as they create teh vaccine.
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What is Diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a bacterial strain that causes breathing difficulties, heart failure, paralysis, and, in some cases, death. The bacterial strains target the mucous membranes of the nose and throat.

What is Tetanus?

Tetanus is a bacterial infection that invades the body.

It produces a toxin that attacks the nervous system and causes muscle contradictions. It often causes an individual’s neck and jaw muscles to lock, making it hard for them to open and swallow. Hence its alternate name, “lockjaw”.

The Vaccines

With Dr. Kitasato Shibasaburō, Emil Von Behring published an article on the development of “antitoxins” against diphtheria and tetanus.

Toxins were injected into guinea pigs, goats, horses, rats, and mice. The animals developed an immunity to the bacteria. The blood of the rats and mice had a destructive effect on the diphtheria bacteria, a notable reaction.

Regarding the patients and the diphtheria vaccine, in 1926, their blood was transfused with animal blood, but those patients died immediately.

After a change in production and quantification of the antitoxins, the treatments proved to be successful.

In 1938, with the tetanus vaccine, a weakened and actively immune version of the disease was injected into the bloodstream. The discovery and production of an inactive vaccine, with the bacterial strain killed, occurred in 1924.

Production of a more effective version happened in 1938 and proved to be successfully effective for soldiers during World War II.

In 1948, a mixture of the diphtheria vaccine, tetanus vaccine, and pertussis vaccine created the DTP vaccine.

Jonas Salk – Poliovirus Vaccine

Jonas Salk, holding two large viles of red luuids in his lab, as forms the vaccine/
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What is Polio?

Polio is a contagious illness that causes nerve injury that leads to paralysis, difficulty in breathing, and often, death.

The majority of those infected are unaware of the infection. The first sign of the infection is flu-like symptoms, which is why early detection is hardly considered.

The Vaccine (1955)

Salk chose the inactively immune method to create the vaccine.

He killed several strains of the virus and injected the benign strain into a healthy person’s bloodstream. As in the past, the immune system would create antibodies designed to resist future infections.

In 1954, the vaccine was tested on the “polio pioneers”, who were one million children. By 1955, the vaccine proved to be effective and safe and, therefore, after the announcement, it was time for a nationwide campaign.

Unfortunately, 200,000 people received a defective vaccine from Cutter Laboratories. The batches of the vaccine contained live, active strains of poliovirus and left 200 children paralyzed and killed ten. Not a single case was linked back to Salk’s vaccine.

Even with a delay in production, the number of cases dropped within the first year of the Salk’s vaccine’s availability.

In 1962, an oral vaccination by Albert Sobin aided in vaccine distribution.

In 2002, due to the vaccine’s success, poliovirus was no longer considered a threat and, therefore, is no longer recommended.

John Enders and Thomas Peebles – Measles Vaccine

Two black and white photos of Enders and Peebles.
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What are Measles?

A contagious respiratory infection, measles causes skin rashes on the whole body and flu-like symptoms. If gone untreated, it results in possible life-threatening complications, such as infections in the lungs and brain.

The Vaccine (1963)

When asked by Enders, Peebles began isolating the virus responsible for measles. He collected blood samples and throat swabs from ill students during an outbreak in Boston, Massachusetts.

The isolation of the strain came from the blood of a 13-year-old boy. The strain was later named after the boy, Edmonston-B strain, and was actively immune.

Maurice Hilleman – Mumps Vaccine

A black and white photograph of Hilleman, in his lab, with him holding a microscope.
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What is Mumps?

Mumps is a contagious disease known for its attack on the salivary glands on each side of your face and behind and below your ears. Its most noticeable effect is the swelling of the salivary guards.

The Vaccine (1963)

Hilleman’s daughter, Jeryl Lynn, came down with the mumps in 1963.

He cultivated material from her and used it as a basis for the mumps vaccine. He chose the actively immune method and weakened the strain.

It became known as the “Jeryl Lynn Strain”, which is still used today.

Stanley Plotkin – Rubella Vaccine (1969)

A black and white photograph of Plotkin in his lab, near a piece of medical equipment, smiling for the photograph.
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What is Rubella?

Also known as “German Measles”, this contagious and viral infection is known for its distinct red rash.

Although there are mild to no symptoms, Rubella poses a threat to unborn babies during pregnancy.

The Vaccine(1969)

Plotkin used aborted fetuses rather than swab samples from patients’ throats. This was particularly due to throat swabs being easily contaminated by other diseases.

He collected and studied dozens of aborted fetuses, but it was the 27th fetus that produced the strain. This strain was developed into a weaker version of rubella, which then created the rubella vaccine.

It became known as RA 27/3: Rubella Abortus, after the 27th fetus had its third (3rd ) organ harvested.

Maurice Hilleman and Colleagues – MMR

black and white images of Hilleman and a colleague as they discover new ways to eradicate disease and create vaccines.
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MMR is for Measles, Mumps, and Rubella, a vaccine that weakens viruses of all three diseases.

Although John Enders and Thomas Peebles developed the measles vaccine, Hilleman further developed it in 1963 with an improved version, made available in 1987.

As for the rubella vaccine, he created a variant in 1969 but used Plotkin’s vaccine for MMR. Plotkin used fetal cells while Hilleman used animal cells. The fetal cells were better equipped to protect humans with fewer side effects.

The combination of antibodies protects humans in a more convenient way, rather than a new way, by having specific antibodies combat their respective diseases.

MMR gives the immune system an opportunity to develop its defenses against a weaker version of the virus and prepare for encounters with the full strength of the virus.

Baruch Blumberg – Hepatitis B Vaccine

A black and white images of Dr. Blumberg, posing and smiling for theh camera in his lab, whiling holding a thick book.
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What is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that attacks the liver by causing liver damage, liver failure, liver cancer, and, at times, death.

The Vaccine (1981)

The Hepatitis B vaccine is the first anti-cancer vaccine that helps prevent liver cancer.

Working with microbiologist Irving Millman, Baruch managed to develop a blood test for Hepatitis B.

After obtaining the virus strain, they used a heat treatment that separated the surface protein from the virus to create the vaccine. The antibodies were immunized directly from the blood of the carriers.

Michiaki Takahashi – Varicella Vaccine

An image of Takahashi, in his lab, smiling for the photograph.
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What is Varicella?

Also known as chickenpox, varicella is a contagious disease that causes itchy rash-like blisters.

The blisters first appear on the chest, back, and face before spreading over the entire body in hundreds.

The Vaccine (1996)

Takahashi successfully weakened a strain of varicella-zoster to make it actively immune. The strain came from the blisters of a three-year-old with a typical chickenpox illness, named the “Oka Strain” after the family.

Guinea pig embryo cultures cultivated the Oka Strain. Children received the vaccine during Japan’s chickenpox epidemic. The vaccine’s effectiveness was difficult to evaluate because certain side effects were similar to chickenpox symptoms.

To prove its effectiveness, 16 children with kidney disease received the vaccine. There weren’t any signs of side effects and the presence of the antibodies protected the children from the infection.

Additionally, scientists further developed the vaccine by cultivating the virus on cell lines from the lung tissue of an aborted fetus embryo.

The varicella vaccine became part of the MMR vaccine, later becoming the MMRV vaccine.

Paul Offit – Rotavirus Vaccine (1998 and 2005)

Paul Offit in his university lab, posing for the camera, while leaning forward on a des chair and surrounded by science equipment.
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What is Rotavirus?

Rotavirus is a highly contagious and easily transmitted infection that particularly infects young children. It causes severe diarrhea and vomiting, which often results in dehydration and hospitalization.

The Vaccine (1998 and 2005)

Offit spent 25 years developing the vaccine.

In 1979, a nine-month-old infant died from Rotavirus dehydration under Offit’s care when he was a pediatric resident. The case prompted him to find a vaccine to prevent another.

When he found the strain, he chose the actively immune method and weakened it.

Although this was in effect, another vaccine to combat Rotavirus became available. The Rotashield vaccine was released in 1998, but it was withdrawn in 1999 after its possible contribution to the spread of the virus, increasing the risk.

In the early 2000s, Rotatrix and RotaTeq (Offit’s vaccine) were made available.

Significance in Anthropology

An image in the UK of people lining up for the COVID-19 vaccination, with people behind barriers getting their doses, and those waiting for the mandatory 10 minutes after receiving theirs.
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Through the cultural and medicinal practices of the past, modern medical professionals created modern vaccines.

Scientists, physicians, and virologists and their methods faced ridicule and criticism but continued to save lives just like their predecessors.

There are skeptics about using vaccines, but one must remember that vaccinations faced a trial-and-error process. It’s through those trials and errors that medical professionals knew how to improve.

As of August 2021, 40% of the world population (3,119,960,966 people) received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 27.3% of the worldwide population (2,126,427,265 people) are fully vaccinated.

“The physician should not treat the disease but the people suffering from it.”

-Moses Maimonides.

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