I often think about what life was like before the age of scientific discovery. Before the theory of evolution, before the revelation that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and even before concepts like gravity were defined. While we may learn what life was like back then, it’s difficult for me to imagine attributing things such as disease epidemics or volcanic eruptions to a deity or magic.
And then I start to think about the people who questioned their society in pursuit of that science. What in the world possessed individuals like Darwin, Copernicus, and Newton to go against the status quo, often at the risk of being ostracized, and correctly define something that no one had defined before? And, how did they come up with their ideas in the first place?
I know this is getting a little nerdy . . . but stay with me.
I’ve spent years learning about people doing really cool things. Now that I’m preparing to graduate, I’ve started to get a little antsy about actually doing something great myself. Learning about the incredible accomplishments of those who came before me, while a little intimidating, helps me set goals to aspire to. As I narrowed my focus to medicine and public health, some scientific figures emerged as clear forerunners in the aspiration category. One particularly relevant example, Edward Jenner, has been the subject of my classes over the past few weeks.
Often regarded as the father of immunology, Jenner is credited with inventing the smallpox vaccination at the end of the 18th century. Considering the recent Disneyland outbreak of measles, a disease preventable through vaccination, it’s no surprise that Jenner’s work is coming to the fore. With activist groups and celebrities questioning the safety of vaccines, the history of this discovery has become very important.
In 1796, Jenner was aware that dairymaids did not contract smallpox. He hypothesized that this immunity was related to the women contracting a non-lethal virus, cowpox, common to the cows they milked. To test his theory, he exposed individuals to viral material from cowpox and smallpox. Much to everyone’s combined relief, the test subjects did not develop the symptoms of the deadly disease when exposed to it. This breakthrough led to the development of the term vaccine, as well the development of vaccines against other infectious diseases.
Reflecting on the very real dangers of smallpox infection, how Jenner came about his discovery is pretty remarkable. As modern research technology was not around in 1796, Jenner determined solely from logic that his idea would actually work. While he gained support and government backing for his research, a lot of people thought he was crazy. Satirical illustrations from that time period highlight societal fears of mandated vaccination. Some even thought that vaccinations derived from cowpox would cause people to turn into cows.
Jenner’s early vaccination research is as pertinent now as it was 200 years ago, as the aforementioned anti-vaccine movement is active in the United States. On grounds of cultural beliefs or fear, some choose not to be vaccinated nor vaccinate their families. Unfortunately, this could result in people getting infected with pretty deadly diseases. If threshold percentages in a population are not vaccinated (called herd immunity), diseases that have been nearly eradicated may return in epidemics (see: the recent Disneyland outbreak).
From what I have learned in my courses, there is no reason to fear. Modern vaccines are made from synthetic materials or weakened forms of viruses, which don’t have the means to cause the disease they protect against. Other claims, such as the one linking MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism, have been discredited by the scientific community. Unfortunately, for many people, anecdotes are more impactful than statistical scientific evidence. While most vaccines have statistically low serious side-effects, everyone “knows someone” who says they have had negative experiences. Additionally, our society’s focus on “natural” and “organic” can turn people away from legitimate and important preventative medicine such as vaccines.
Okay, nerd soapbox session over.
After studying the work of scientists such as Edward Jenner, I’m incredibly excited about my path forward. I confirmed that biology and public health not only are interesting but also have practical applications that are incredibly important to the welfare of society. While I may not be ready to develop a vaccine or investigate an epidemic quite yet, the prospect seems closer than ever. I only hope that I can add to the framework of those who came before me.