04.11.2015 |

Episode #5 of the course “Ideas that changed the world”


For thousands of years, diseases like measles, polio, and smallpox spread rampantly. People generally misunderstood disease to have supernatural causes, and these infections were treated with well-meaning (but ineffective and often painful or deadly) remedies that included exorcism, making patients bleed, or prescribing concoctions with ingredients like mercury and urine. The process of vaccination against disease is now practiced around the world, saving millions of lives from deaths by these once-common diseases.

Before vaccines and vaccination were invented, hundreds of thousands of people died from diseases that are nearly eradicated today. Some outbreaks of smallpox in Europe caused as many as 30% of infected people to die, and other viral infections had even more devastating effects. Diseases were so destructive, they could wipe out entire families or diminish a city; when members of an army would become infected with diseases like measles, the death toll could turn the tides of wars.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, European exploration caused transportation of diseases to populations that had never encountered them and had no resistance. It is argued that as many as 90% of some native North and South American populations died from diseases like smallpox.

It was, however, generally noted that people who survived one of these viruses did not become reinfected. Since 1000 CE, Chinese doctors developed “inoculation,” a process involving exposing a patient to a disease by direct bodily contact with an infected person. People who were inoculated developed the disease at a noticeably lower rate. The idea spread to Turkey, where the wife of the British ambassador, Mary Wortley Montagu, brought it back to England. There, the physician Edward Jenner developed a process for vaccination and published it in 1796.

France’s Louis Pasteur furthered the concept by applying it to animal pathologies and diseases; he developed vaccinations for farm animals that drastically reduced loss of livestock in Europe and the Americas. He also developed a vaccine against rabies, protecting people from this fearsome disease transmitted from animals.



“You know you haven’t stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.” by Groucho Marx

“Some very poor countries run great vaccination systems, and some richer ones run terrible programs.” by Bill Gates

“First love is a kind of vaccination which saves a man from catching the complaint the second time.” by Honore de Balzac


Recommended books

“Dissolving Illusions: Disease, Vaccines, and The Forgotten History” by Suzanne Humphries MD

“The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child” by Robert W. Sears


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