Jonas Salk and the Invention of the Polio Vaccine

A Brief History of Vaccination

English physician, Edward Jenner, is credited with advancing variolation to vaccination. By the late 1700s, scientists and farmers realized that cowpox and smallpox were closely related and that immunity from cowpox also mean immunity from smallpox. By the 1790s, Jenner began experimenting and successfully used the cowpox vaccine to inoculate those against smallpox. By 1800, the cowpox vaccine was was in widespread use across Europe.

This scientific breakthrough made its way to the United States through Harvard professor, Benjamin Waterhouse, who shared this discovery with then vice president Thomas Jefferson in 1800. During his later presidency, Jefferson created the National Vaccine Institute. In 1813, President James Madison signed the Vaccine Act of 1813 to ensure the vaccine's purity was maintained as well as ensuring the vaccine was available to all citizens. 

Animal-based diseases like rabies, fowl cholera, rinderpest, and anthrax continued to plague societies throughout the 1800s. The advancements of smallpox from variolation to vaccination gave rise to further discoveries and vaccinations. Louis Pasteur studied the fermentation of microbes, patenting his pasteurization process to kill pathogens in the 1870s and by the end of the 19th century, the idea that microbes caused disease (germ theory) was proposed by German physician and microbiologist, Robert Koch.

From 1880 to 1900, scientific collaboration and competition led to major advances in immunology and microbiology. Vaccine research was led by the French Pasteur Institute and the German Institute for Infectious Disease. By the end of the 19th century, five vaccines were created and used against smallpox, rabies, typhoid, cholera, and bubonic plague. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded three times for work related to vaccines.

By the 20th century, we saw the rise of government regulation of vaccines and their widespread use across the globe. Vaccines were developed for tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. A major breakthrough came in 1931; Ernest Goodpasture, American pathologist and physician working at Vanderbilt University, developed a method of growing viruses in fertilized chicken eggs. Prior to this point, viruses had to be grown in live animals like monkeys, ferrets, and mice. Goodpasture discovered that fertilized eggs could be sterilized and injected with the virus, allowing the virus to grow in the membrane surround the chicken embryo. The first two vaccines created from this method were for yellow fever and influenza; this technique is still used today!

Davidson, Tish. Vaccines: History, Science, and Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2017.

Feemster, Kristen A.. Vaccines: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

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