50 Fun Facts about Vaccines

As we turn the final pages of the year 2020, COVID-19 vaccines are being given to people in the US and the UK. Undoubtedly, this is the shortest humankind has taken to roll out a vaccine as is evident in the image below. 

Science textbooks have reminded us time and again that Edward Jenner created the first vaccine in the world and the work he pioneered in the late 1700s has helped us not only eradicate smallpox but also fight other diseases like polio, yellow fever, chickenpox to name a few. So, here are some fun facts about vaccinations that you likely did not know. 

Let’s begin with some controversy. 


  1. Edward Jenner did not pioneer vaccination.  People knew well that milkmaids infected with cowpox are immune from smallpox outbreaks.  Jenner was a genius who converted local wisdom into a controlled protocol. He studied if the protocol gave reproducible results.  

  2. Like all big discoveries, Jenner’s discovery was no overnight success. He began studying cowpox in the year 1770. He studied 16 cases over 26 years before inoculating eight-year-old James Phipps. 

  3. Before his smallpox success, Jenner was known for his skills as a naturalist. His work on the cuckoo was well received and even won him the Fellowship of Royal Society in 1789. Jenner demonstrated that depression on the back of a baby cuckoo facilitates pushing off the eggs and chicks in a host nest. This depression disappears within 12 days of life after the cuckoo hatches.  

More controversy

  1. Before Jenner, there were at least six people who had performed cowpox vaccinations. This information was either not publicized or rejected by authorities.  Peter Plett, reported his findings to the University of Kiel in 1790-1792. The faculty there did not respond to his communication. This was because they believed that their method of inducing immunity was better. Yes, there was a method in practice - called variolation.

  1. Variolation had been the go-to method for inducing immunity since the early 1600s. i.e. almost two hundred years before Jenner’s vaccination came along. Variolation involved taking pus from infected individuals and introducing it into healthy individuals. It was practised in Asia and made its way to Europe in the mid-1700s.

  2. Lady Montagu, the wife of a British Ambassador, observed variolation in Constantinople in 1717. The Asian version involved blowing dried scabs of smallpox up the nose of the individual. At Lady Montagu’s and Princess of Wales' persistence, abandoned children and prisoners were variolated in 1721. Pus was introduced after making an incision under the skin. Later the subjects of the experiment were then exposed to smallpox to determine efficacy. When nobody fell sick, the technique was deemed safe for the rest.  Powdered pus up the nose and other Chinese precursors to vaccinations | South China Morning Post (scmp.com)

  3. Variolation became common in Europe as well but came with its risks.  King George III lost a son to variolation. At times, recipients died due to the procedure. Some got infected with a mild form of the disease. This led to outbreaks of the very disease variolation protected from.  Still, variolation became a generally accepted method. 

  4. A British report speaks about the practice of variolation well before the 1800s. The report states that variolation was a rampant practice in northern and eastern states of India but not so much in the southern state of Madras. Still, the northern part of the Madras state housed more than 1800 indigenous variolators. These were “Woodiah”  (or Oriya ) Brahmins, from present-day Odisha state.

  5. Preparations for variolation began up to a month before the procedure. Recipients shifted to a special diet that excluded fish, milk and ghee (clarified butter). The Brahmans preferred to variolate males in the arm and females in the shoulder.

  6. The British sponsored variolation in Trichninopoly in Madras in 1787. Surgeon Nicol Mein variolated twenty European soldiers, to begin with. Buoyed by their success, the Madras government decided to variolate the civil population in 1800. It printed communication promoting variolation in local languages. By 1802, it had variolated 26000 people.  

  7. To test his method, Jenner variolated Phipps who showed no signs of infection. Later he variolated him again. He studied another 12 subjects. Satisfied, he sent his observations to the Royal Society who did not publish it.

  8. Unperturbed, Jenner continued his experiments. His research included a total of 23 subjects, including his 11-month-old son. He published his research titled Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccine at his own expense. Edward Jenner and the Development of the Smallpox Vaccine | Books, Health and History (nyamcenterforhistory.org)

  9. In the spring of 1800, Jenner even attempted to send the vaccine to India at his private expense. The voyage on East Indiaman’s Queen was still in its initial leg when a fire broke out and shipwrecked off San Salvador.

  10. Jenner’s work was the subject of ridicule. Some people thought they would get cow appendages after getting his vaccine. As years passed, the British accepted his work and set out to make it popular in its colonies.

  11. Kings and Presidents used vaccinations to showcase their scientific outlook. As a commitment to public health. 100,000 people had been vaccinated in Europe in 1800. Vaccinations began in the US after a push from Harvard professor Benjamin Waterhouse and President Thomas Jefferson. In 1803, King Charles IV of Spain sent an expedition to the Americas to introduce smallpox vaccination to its colonies. Orphans from Madrid served as an arm-to-arm transfer chain to keep the vaccine fresh.

  12. Late in 1802, the cowpox vaccine reached Madras. The government immediately shifted its stance from variolation to vaccination. Overnight, variolation was inferior for the government that had performed 26000 variolations.

  13. In January 1803, the Madras government declared an intensive campaign to promote vaccination. The plan included employing indigenous vaccinators, instructing and certifying them. Between September 1802 and April 1804, this campaign vaccinated 145,000 persons. 

  14. The sudden shift in government stance was suspicious. Surgeon J Dalton, vaccinating in Trivatore in the Chingleput District in 1804. Thousands of angry locals confronted him. Personal details were collected during vaccinations. These were perceived as a prelude to a capitation tax or transportation. Such was the mistrust that people preferred death than vaccination from the government.

  15. In 1806, the Collector of Madurai asked local zamindars (landowners) to donate a sum of money to  Jenner. This gesture was to thank Jenner for “the benefit the world has derived from his attention.”

  16. With success achieved by vaccination, the incidence of smallpox declined. Countries viewed vaccinations as an integral part of public health. Governments made vaccinations mandatory by law to ensure societal security and productivity. Working-class Britons viewed this as an assault by the ruling class. An anti-vaccination movement emerged.

  17. Vaccination involved transferring lymph from pustules on the arms from those recently vaccinated. The procedure also spread diseases such as erysipelas, syphilis and scrofula. Anti-vaccinators, then, were also rational thinkers. They were weighing the benefits of vaccinating themselves against the risks.

  18. After Jenner’s success, there was not much progress on vaccines for another 90 years. French chemist Loius Pasteur discovered the rabies vaccine in 1885. What Pasteur called a vaccine was an antidote given after exposure to the rabies virus. Nevertheless, the term vaccine stuck on. In Latin, as Jenner used it, ‘vaccinae’ means ‘pertaining to the cow’.

  19. Around this time, Waldemar Haffkine had just graduated in zoology from the University of Odesa in present-day Ukraine. A Jew, he could not get a job as a professor. He left his country and became a librarian at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He spent his spare time playing the violin or experimenting in the bacteriology lab. Pasteur and the Pasteur Institute, 1880-1915 - Pasteur Brewing

  20. Haffkine was interested in the cholera bacterium. Through his experiments, he learned that passing the bacilli through guinea pig abdominal cavity 39 times produced a strengthened culture. He could then weaken this culture using heat.

  21. Haffkine found a method to make guinea pigs immune to cholera. One injected them first with a weakened culture followed by a strengthened culture. Until this point, it was believed that cholera travelled by bad air. Haffkine’s work established that a bacterium caused cholera. The disease was preventable. But he needed further proof.

  22. On 18th July 1892, Haffkine injected himself with his heat weakened cholera. He developed a fever for several days. When he recovered, he inoculated three of his Russian friends and several volunteers. When nobody reported a severe reaction, Haffkine knew he had a viable vaccine. He wanted to test it further. 

  23. So in 1893, at the age of 33, Haffkine landed in India to test his vaccine. A two-dose regimen given a week apart, Haffkine and his team struggled to get his volunteers back for the second dose. There was no outbreak of cholera in the region that year. The efficacy of the vaccine remained unknown. As per his records, Haffkine’s team managed to inoculate 23000 people. (A modern-day Stage 3 trial but could not determine its outcome).

  24. Haffkine returned to India a year later after an outbreak in Kattal Bagan basti (settlement) in Bengal. Haffkine vaccinated over 100 people in the basti. Ten cases were detected later, seven of which turned fatal. None of the seven had been vaccinated.

  25. After initial resistance, people in Bengal started queueing up to receive Haffkine’s vaccine. Haffkine would begin in the morning and continue in the night beside an oil lamp.

  26. Hoping to gain from the success achieved in Bengal, plantation owners in Assam invited Haffkine to vaccinate their staff. By 1895, Haffkine had managed to vaccinate a total of 45000 people. Haffkine’s vaccination streak came to an abrupt end when he came down with malaria and had to go to England to recover.The chilling discovery: when the plague came to Bombay in 1896 (scroll.in)

  27. In September 1896, plague struck Bombay (present-day Mumbai). As the disease ravaged through Bombay’s slums, the British government turned to Haffkine for help. Haffkine travelled to Bombay to develop a vaccine from scratch.

  28. Working from a small room with three untrained assistants, Haffkine came up with a vaccine candidate within four months. (And we are praising Moderna and Pfizer today).

  29. Haffkine used the best method known to him to test the plague vaccine. On 10th January 1897, Haffkine injected himself with 10 ml of the trial vaccine. He developed a high fever but recovered after a few days. He planned to use only a 3 ml dose for recipients.

  30. Later that month, he carried out a controlled test at Byculla House of Correction (modern-day Byculla Jail). Of the 147 he had vaccinated, two got sick but no one died. Of the 172 who were not vaccinated, 12 got the disease and six died. 

  31. Vaccine manufacturing was scaled up and thousands received Haffkine’s vaccine. Innumerable lives were saved. He was knighted by Queen Victoria and appointed as Director of Plague Research Laboratory in 1901 with a staff of 53 people.

  32. However, a mishap at a vaccination booth in Punjab in 1902 raised questions about Haffkine’s vaccine. A biased investigation blamed his methods of attenuation (weakening) for the event. His method was the same one used at Pasteur Institute for over two years. It had also helped scale up vaccine production. The investigators were not aware of this and Haffkine was suspended from the lab.

  33. The full investigation report was published only in 1906. It was refuted by experts WJ Simpson and Ronald Ross, who led a campaign against British ignorance. Haffkine’s suspension was revoked in 1907 and he returned as director of Calcutta Biological Laboratory. But he could no longer conduct trials, not even for a new cholera vaccine.

  34. The damage was already done. Trust in the vaccine had dropped when it mattered the most. The plague peaked in India in 1904 killing 1.14 million people.Haffkine Institute

  35. About 26 million plague vaccine doses were shipped out of Haffkine’s lab between 1897-1925.

  36. As governments weighed the benefits of vaccinations, they began mandating their use. In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled compulsory smallpox vaccination outweighed an individual’s right to privacy.

  37. As years passed vaccines for more diseases were developed. Diphtheria, measles, mumps, and rubella were added to the list of vaccines that were mandatory for children. Often government entities administered vaccines. Some made them mandatory for public school attendance.

  38. In the US, even the defence establishment involved in vaccine development. It innovated the inactivated influenza vaccine. It promoted its acceptance through mandates and coercion.

  39. Polio was one of the diseases that eluded vaccine makers. In the 1921 outbreak, Franklin Roosevelt was infected at the age of 39. 

  40. Another two decades passed before Jonas Salk produced the killed-virus polio vaccine in 1943. Private companies, Eli Lilly, Wyeth and Davis Parker came forward to make a large number of doses to vaccinate at scale.

  41. Albert Sabin, a Russia born immigrant to the US was studying dentistry when he became interested in virology. With his team, he autopsied polio victims to find that the virus used the gastrointestinal tract to infect its victims. Sabin suggested that a live virus could be used in an oral vaccine to stop polio. Albert Sabin

  42. Salk’s injectable vaccine was quite popular and Sabin’s idea received no traction in the US. So, Sabin went to the Russian health authorities who agreed to do large field trials. After three years of trials, Russia approved the oral polio vaccine. This was later approved by the US FDA and promoted by the World Health Organization in its anti-polio drives. Sabin shared his expertise with the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, who made the oral vaccines.

  43. President John F Kennedy made vaccinations a key point of his administration.  In the 1960s, 26 companies in the US were engaged in active vaccine manufacture.  As disease outbreaks reduced, perceptions about the utility of vaccines reduced. 

  44. Tough regulations, low-profit margins and increased costs resulted in many manufacturers closing shop.  This even led to vaccine shortages in the 1990s in the US.

  45. In 1999, the US FDA stopped licensing vaccines that contain thimerosal. Anti-vaccinators continue to make claims about vaccines containing thimerosal though.

  46. Biowarfare threats led to the US government launching a smallpox vaccination drive in the early 2000s. In December 2002, President George Bush received a smallpox vaccine as part of this drive. Public response was still tepid since people had not seen the horrors of smallpox.



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