A memorable fact from the history of science, at least as science is understood and presented in textbooks, is that science advances by breakthroughs that are the result of the work of a lone researcher (usually a man) who toils away, often amid criticism, until he makes the breakthrough that silences and shames his critics.
You can see an excellent example at the Famous Scientists: The Art of Genius website where you can find a very long list of scientists (an inventors), each name connected to his "breakthrough."
However, two medical scientists who work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York identify a problem with the breakthrough model which "promises to stunt the growth of researchers and research" because "it is extremely rare that a single individual or experiment generates a quantum leap in understanding; this 'lone genius' paradigm is potentially injurious to the research process. Wildly unrealistic expectations can only yield unsuccessful scientific investigation, but small steps supported by an informed public can build toward a giant leap..." (Gross & Sepkowitz, 1998)
The breakthrough hero of the small pox history is Edward Jenner, the Gloucestershire physician who is memorialized for his 1796 use of cow pox to vaccinate the eight year old James Phipps as a way to protect him from smallpox.
The breakthrough is celebrated on BBC's Primary History webpage: "Today, we are safe from smallpox thanks to Edward Jenner. A disease that once killed thousands of people every year was beaten, thanks to his work. Some people laughed at his ideas, but Jenner was not put off. And people all over the world are grateful for what he did."
A more careful exploration of the interactions between humans and smallpox tells a richer and more instructive story.
Estimates date the deadly disease of smallpox as part of human experience for perhaps 10,000 years, with its origin in northeast Africa in the area that became Egypt. From there it spread to India and China. Over that long history, smallpox was a dreaded killer that would spread quickly through a village or city, killing one-third of the adult victims and most of the young children it infected. Survivors were left disfigured and severe cases often resulted in blindness.
Written records from the ancient world documented the devastating nature of smallpox.
The Greek Thucydides was a contemporary observer of the plague that struck Athens in 430 B.C.E. "There was awful spectacle of men dying like sheep." He also observed that the ill were nursed by those who had survived smallpox. (Thucydides, 2.51)
This 2,500 year old observation that surviving smallpox meant that you would not catch it again was the key to locking up the deadly killer.
This insight shared by many observers became the foundation for efforts in ancient China, India, and Africa to prevent smallpox infection.
There are documents from China that describe efforts to immunize children by drying the material from smallpox sores and blowing it into the nose.
In India and Africa, it was noted that some smallpox cases were milder and less lethal than others. Clothing and blankets from smallpox survivors of the milder form was wrapped around children in the hope that they would get a similarly milder case of the disease.
A related strategy that arose sometime prior to the 17th century in Africa, India, and China was inoculation.
The process consisted of taking pus from smallpox and using a knife to insert it under the skin of a child. "A local skin lesion would appear after three days, along with a fever, more lesions over several more days." While inoculation occasionally led to a full blown case of smallpox, the strategy was often successful. (Gross & Sepkowitz, 1998)
The technique came to Great Britain early in the 18th century, first through letters to the Royal Society from two British physicians traveling in the Ottoman Empire and then from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the ambassador to Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) where having observed the process had had her young son inoculated. (Note: Two terms were used to describe the process: inoculation, from the Latin word meaning to graft and variolation, from the Latin name for smallpox, variola.]
In the British North American colonies, inoculation was promoted by an influential clergyman, Cotton Mather, who had learned about it from an African slave who explained the scar on his arm. He had been variolated as a child and had therefore passed uninfected through several smallpox epidemics. Mather persuaded one Boston physician to immunize his patients using the variolation technique. Both Mather and the physician were severely criticized, by the way, until the value of inoculation was shown during a 1721 smallpox outbreak in Boston when the death rate from those who had been variolated was about 2% compared to the 30% mortality from those who had not been.
By the middle of the century, it was not uncommon for children from prosperous families to be inoculated, as was the eight year old Edward Jenner in 1758.
In 1777, George Washington ordered that his Continental soldiers should be variolated. Around this time, a much safer way to protect individuals from smallpox was found. Dairy farmers in Glouchester in the west of England recognized that the young women who milked cows seldom contracted the smallpox. The secret to the "milk maid's complexion" was the fact that they usually contracted a milder disease known as cow pox from contact with the udders of cow pox infected cows. Vaccination (from Latin, vaca, cow) with cow pox resulted in a much milder infection than variolation.
In the years after 1770 at least five investigators in Germany and England used cow pox vaccine successfully. One of these was a farmer named Benjamin Jesty in the year 1774. jesty, a dairy farmer, having heard rumors that smallpox was in his region, Jesty used cow pox pus from a neighbor's cow to vaccinate his wife and children. Later, when his children were inoculated, they did not acquire even a mild case of smallpox, demonstrating that the much safer technique of using cow pox also conferred immunity.
So when Jenner conducted his first vaccination in 1796, he was not making a breakthrough; he was working in very familiar territory and simply was putting well-known information into a compelling demonstration. He used his good political connections to ensure that the news was widely spread. Just as the Sloan-Kettering medical scientists assert, vaccination against smallpox would have likely occurred even had Jenner never been born.
The lone-genius quantum leap version of science becomes an unfortunate way to teach about science. It reduces the really complex and interesting process by which people struggle to learn about the world to a kind of magic show, which everyone knows is just trickery.
Gross, C. P., & Sepkowitz, K. A. The myth of the medical breakthrough: Smallpox, vaccination, and Jenner reconsidered. International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 3(1), 54-60. doi:10.1016/S1201-9712(98)90096-0
George Washinton and the First Mass Military Inoculation.George Washinton and the First Mass Military Inoculation.
Strasser, Robert B. (Ed). Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War. New York, 1996.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.