In June 1802, James Gillray published the Cow-Pock or “The Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!” a publication of the Anti-vaccine Society. It used bald-faced lies and misinformation to discourage people from taking the first vaccine in European medicine. In his classic propaganda cartoon, he implied that vaccinations would cause people to become more bovine, possibly sprouting cow’s ear, horns, or hooves. More on the use of lies and deceit can be found in the book: The Wisdom of Loki by Ptera Hunter.
On May 14, 1796, Jenner inoculated the first person with cowpox to prevent smallpox. Although crude by today’s standards, it worked well, and soon he became a celebrity, and people sought out his preventative for the deadly and deforming smallpox.
Jenner had no idea how it worked; he just knew that it did. The first isolation of a virus would not happen for almost a century when the tobacco mosaic virus was isolated (1892). The tobacco mosaic virus was also the first one captured on film (1933 by Helmut Ruska, brother of the co-inventor of the electron microscope).
Smallpox and cowpox are caused by related viruses that invoke cross-immunity. No one knew what a virus was in Jenner’s day, but he could see the results. Vaccines produce antibodies to diseases by tricking the body into thinking it has already had the disease. The immune system responds to the deceit by making antibodies to the real germ.
Jenner’s vaccine was the first one, but it lessened the scourge of smallpox. By 1980, the World Health Assembly declared that smallpox had been eradicated in the wild, and no known cases have happened since then. Smallpox, a disease that leaves its survivors severely scared, is the only virus successfully eliminated in nature. Two things made this possible: Humans appear to be the sole host of the virus (no other hosts to hold hidden reservoirs), and the cooperation of the world in the campaign to vaccinate everyone.
Today, we continue to benefit from Jenner’s discovery, despite a dark side. The ethics of human experimentation were different in Jenner’s day, and what he did was in accord with his day’s values. Jenner’s proof of concept was done by infecting an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, with matter taken from a cowpox pustule. The boy got mildly sick and recovered. He then inoculated James with material from a smallpox victim, and James remained healthy. The success of this initial demonstration drew people to the vaccine.
Jenner gets credit for discovering the vaccination (literally from French: Cow-ination, named because of his use of cowpox). However, a man known only as Onesimus (useful) had a vaccine that predated Jenners. Onesimus was an enslaved African “owned” by Cotton Mather since 1706. The man had medical knowledge from Africa, and he shared that knowledge with his captors.
Onesimus told Mather that he could prevent smallpox by rubbing matter from a victim’s skin into a wound of a healthy person. The method did not use a less dangerous virus to create immunity, and it used smallpox itself. It activated the body’s defenses, and it worked most of the time.
Cotton Mather became a supporter of “variolation” (vaccination) and spread the word about his success. Unfortunately, other colonists ridiculed him and refused to use the vaccine because it was the product of a black slave. Not until the outbreak of 1721 did Onesimus’ method gain some acceptance when the physician Zabdiel Boylson used the technique on his own son and the enslaved people in his household. His success encouraged other Bostonians to step forward. The method of Onesimus dropped the actualized death rate among the inoculated from one in seven to one in forty.
What happened to Onesimus? We don’t know. He eventually purchased his freedom from Cotton Mather, but after that, history loses track of him.