Vaccinations

Vaccinations are part of the success story of modern medicine, and their discovery has saved numerous lives. However, the long and insistent work of many researchers was needed to get that far.

History of vaccination

The father of vaccination – at least from a Western point of view – is Edward Jenner (1749-1823), an English country physician. At his time, smallpox was a deadly disease which killed approximately 30% of the people affected. Already Chinese physicians tried to ‘inoculate’ or ‘variolate’ patients with secretions of pox lesions: crusts of smallpox lesions were crushed and blown into the nose, or lesional secretions were scratched into the skin. This method was introduced in Europe in the 18th century by Lady Mary Montagu. Most individuals survived this treatment, yet a few percent died either from the transmitted smallpox or from other infections caused by non-sterile instruments. In 1796, the English physician Edward Jenner inoculated the 8 year-old James Phipps with material from cowpox lesions of a dairymaid, freshly affected with this disease harmless for humans. At that time, it was already known that dairymaids who had been first infected with cowpox, were later protected from smallpox, a related disease. Two months later, Jenner inoculated the 8 year-old with smallpox material and, luckily, the boy did not develop any symptoms.

The world’s first vaccine


Comic strip depicting the discovery of vaccinations by Edward Jenner. In 1796, the English physician Edward Jenner inoculated the 8 years-old James Philipps with material from cowpox lesions of a dairymaid freshly affected with cowpox. This was one of the first attempts of a successful vaccination.

In 1721, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had imported variolation to Britain after having observed it in Constantinople. variolation, which used smallpox to create an immunity to itself, was already a standard practice but involved serious risks.


Comic strip depicting the discovery of vaccinations by Edward Jenner. In 1796, the English physician Edward Jenner inoculated the 8 years-old James Philipps with material from cowpox lesions of a dairymaid freshly affected with cowpox. This was one of the first attempts of a successful vaccination.

In the years following, several investigators successfully tested in humans a cowpox vaccine against smallpox, but it was not until Jenner’s work that the procedure became widely understood.


Comic strip depicting the discovery of vaccinations by Edward Jenner. In 1796, the English physician Edward Jenner inoculated the 8 years-old James Philipps with material from cowpox lesions of a dairymaid freshly affected with cowpox. This was one of the first attempts of a successful vaccination.

14 May 1796, Edward Jenner performed his first vaccination on James Phipps, a boy of age 8.


After some more successful cases, Jenner published his observations and termed the procedure ‘vaccination’, derived from the Latin word ‘vacca’ for ‘cow’. Even if there were many initial concerns, the principle of vaccination rapidly spread throughout Europe. This was the first successful procedure to prevent a frequently mortal disease. Still, it took more than one hundred years to establish widespread vaccination programs in Western countries. Finally, the efforts of the WHO resulted in the eradication of smallpox in 1977, nearly two centuries after the discovery by Edward Jenner.

Principles of vaccinations

The immunology of today describes the processes involved in vaccination more precisely than this was possible at the beginning of the 20th century. If we want to understand why vaccination was effective, we need to recognize, first, that an organism is able to create defence cells, that ‘remember’ the specifics of an intruder. Second, we need to recap how these memory cells are functional in vaccination.

The organism produces specific cells that help address invading germs. Before the intrusion, these cells – B cells and T cells – exist in a so-called naïve state. As soon as a pathogen – the infectious agent – is detected, cells start transformation in order to become operative particularly against this kind of pathogen. B cells become plasma cells that emit antibodies specifically tuned to the intruder’s antigen. Thus, the cells disarm a pathogen quite effectively as the antibodies dock to the pathogen’s antigen. At the same time the so-called B memory cells are produced. These are cells that remember the specifics of the pathogen and can react much more quickly if an attack by the same pathogen occurs.

Illustration depicting how immunological memory is established. First, antigens are taken up by dendritic cells. The antigens presented by dendritic cells are then recognized by T cells, which, upon their activation, become so-called helper T cells. Meanwhile, B cells pick up the antigen and process it. Once processed, the antigen is presented on the surface of the B cell. The helper T cells bind to the antigen and then release cytokines that stimulate the B cells. Once stimulated, B cells undergo proliferation and differentiation in antibody-producing plasma cells and memory B cells. The memory B cells remain in the immune organs and elicit a new immune reaction at a subsequent allergen exposure.Development of immunological memory. (click to enlarge)

During this course you will revisit this process under different perspectives. As explained earlier, it takes time. Its principle is also applied in vaccinations.

Basically, vaccination helps to build an immune defence against microbes and particularly their toxins. Toxins are venomous substances produced within living cells and organisms. One form of vaccination introduces an inactivated toxin – a so-called toxoid – into the organism. After the necessary time the vaccinated organism mounts the first antibody response. Through this, memory cells are formed. If the natural toxin later affects the body, the specific immune response is not only quicker but it has also gained in scope. The vaccination thus enlarges the acquired immunity of an organism.

Figure depicting the process of active immunisation, where for example an inactivated toxin – a so-called toxoid – is introduced into the organism. After the necessary time the vaccinated organism mounts the first antibody response. Through this, memory cells are formed. If the natural toxin later infects the body, the specific immune response is not only quicker but it has also gained in scope.Active immunisation.

This is the basic process of active vaccination. However, today, we know that immunisation can happen actively or passively through an either natural or artificially-induced mechanism.

  1. Natural active immunity: In some diseases, a single natural infection results in a lifelong immunity (eg chickenpox), although a secondary local outbreak called ‘shingles’ is possible. This is naturally acquired active immunity. More specifically, the immune system activates memory B and T cells to produce antibodies and T effector cells preventing a second outbreak of the disease.

  2. Artificial active immunity: Active vaccination involves the induction of pathogen-specific antibodies and/or effector cells. This can be achieved by live, attenuated, or inactivated pathogens or purified antigens. This type of vaccination is for example used to protect patients against tetanus through induction of protective anti-tetanus antibodies by an attenuated tetanus toxoid.

  3. Natural passive immunity: An example for natural passive immunity is the transfer of antibodies from mother-to-child, through the placenta and later through breastfeeding. Passive immunisation lasts for several weeks to months.

  4. Artificial passive immunity: Artificially-acquired passive immunity is the transfer of antibodies from another human or another species to an individual. This results in immediate but short-lived immunity, because the antibodies are not produced by the individuals themselves. It is for example used in an unvaccinated person, if bitten by a rabid dog. Anti-rabies antibodies and rabies vaccine are given in parallel, otherwise the patient would likely die before he has produced sufficient protective antibodies.

With this in mind you might want to explore the history of vaccines. Think about the assumptions, concepts, or questions that drove these discoveries forward. We look forward to your comments and questions!

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This article is from the free online course:

Allergies: When the Immune System Backfires

University of Basel