LDS Charities Updates

See How Far We’ve Come – From Edward Jenner to the Eradication of Smallpox

A boy receives a smallpox vaccination in India.

See How Far We’ve Come—from Edward Jenner to the Eradication of Smallpox

Smallpox is one of the world’s deadliest killers—but it’s more accurate to say that it was one of the world’s deadliest killers. Between 1958 and 1980 the World Health Organization (WHO) sponsored a global effort to eradicate this terrible disease. On May 8, 1980, WHO declared that “the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake.”[1]

Before 1980, however, the threat of smallpox was a serious concern around the world, and it killed millions of people. There are two forms of the smallpox virus: variola minor and variola major. Variola minor had a fatality rate of less than 1 percent, but variola major had a much higher fatality rate of 30 percent.[2]

Smallpox was one of the world’s most infectious diseases and was spread from person to person through the air. The disease is named for the pustules that would erupt all over an infected person’s body—including painful blisters on the face, hands, and feet. Even when smallpox wasn’t fatal, the scarring that remained after the pustules disappeared could disfigure victims. Many other victims were left blind.

While the biological origin of smallpox is unknown, the earliest archeological evidence of the disease has been found in Egyptian mummies from the 3rd century BC. In 18th century Europe an estimated 400,000 people died from the disease every year, and thousands were blinded. In the 20th century, smallpox killed an estimated 300 to 500 million people. As recently as 1967, 15 million cases occurred each year, mostly in the developing world.[3]

Edward Jenner and Cowpox

In the late 18th century a British physician named Edward Jenner made a medical breakthrough that helped eradicate smallpox. Like others before him, Jenner noticed that milkmaids often caught cowpox—a nonlethal virus related to smallpox—but they rarely caught smallpox. It infects cattle and the men and women who work closely with them. Long before the microbial theory of disease was discovered, Jenner suspected that there was a connection between the two diseases and that infection with cowpox correlated with immunity to smallpox.

On May 14, 1796, Jenner decided to test his theory by injecting material from a dairymaid’s cowpox pustules into his gardener’s eight-year-old son, James Phipps. A few weeks later he deliberately infected Phipps with smallpox material to see if he would develop the disease. He did not.[4]

After similar tests Jenner decided to publicize his findings in scientific journals. This reporting led to massive vaccination campaigns in which people were injected with cowpox to develop immunity to smallpox. In fact, it was Jenner’s work with cowpox that led to the creation of the term vaccine, which derives from the Latin word for cow, vacca.

Though some people still doubted the effectiveness of the smallpox vaccine, it didn’t take long to prove the vaccine’s worth. After a campaign of inoculation in London between 1800 and 1810, the city recorded only 7,800 deaths from smallpox, down from over 18,000 the previous decade.[5] As news spread of Jenner’s findings and the drop in smallpox-related deaths, scientists and physicians around the world worked to perfect the smallpox vaccine and administer it to thousands.[6]

Over the next 80 years, doctors followed up on Jenner’s success to create vaccines for other lethal diseases. Louis Pasteur, a French biologist and chemist, used Jenner’s work to help develop his theory of microorganisms and germ theory, which led to his creation of a vaccine for rabies.[7] As time passed and vaccines for other diseases were created, international groups like WHO and other partners decided to focus their efforts on the global eradication of smallpox.

Eradication of Smallpox

Beginning in 1966, WHO focused on eradicating smallpox by conducting vaccination campaigns and by closely monitoring smallpox breakouts. These measures were focused around Asia and Africa, where the disease was still rampant. It took worldwide collaboration and concentrated effort to deliver the vaccine and information about the vaccine’s effectiveness. Finally, in 1980, WHO declared that smallpox had been eradicated everywhere—a historic first in the history of disease and vaccination.[8]

It took 184 years to progress from Edward Jenner’s discovery and promotion of his primitive vaccine to the worldwide eradication of smallpox via mass immunization. Today only a few samples of the smallpox disease still exist—carefully stored in research facilities.[9] Because the disease has been eradicated, there is no need for vaccination against smallpox. We’ve come so far from the days of smallpox epidemics.

Future Eradication of Diseases

Now that we’ve successfully eradicated smallpox, we know that it’s possible to eradicate some other diseases such as polio. Thankfully, the time between the creation of a vaccine for a disease and its eradication will be much shorter than that of smallpox because people and organizations around the world have realized the power of vaccines and mass immunization. Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and WHO monitor diseases around the world, tracking epidemics, strengthening immunization coverage, and helping to fund the development of vaccines for emerging diseases like Ebola and Zika.

World Immunization Week 2018, April 23–30, highlights the need to protect everyone from vaccine-preventable diseases and encourages the public to support increased vaccine coverage in the United States and around the world, particularly for vulnerable children under the age of five. Immunization averts the death of 2 to 3 million people each year, but there are an estimated 19.5 million infants worldwide still missing out on basic vaccines.[10] By making vaccines a priority, we could prevent an additional 1.5 million deaths annually worldwide, including those of unvaccinated and undervaccinated children.[11]

As part of World Immunization Week 2018, LDS Charities is proud to collaborate with UNICEF USA, Kiwanis International, Rotary International, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote World Immunization Week. Through immunization we can all be protected together. To learn more about World Immunization Week, click here.

Click here to learn about our immunization efforts.


[1] World Health Organization, quoted in Hugh Pennington, “Smallpox and Bioterrorism,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 81, no. 10 (October 2003), 762, http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/81/10/PHR1003.pdf?ua=1.

[2] “Clinical Diagnosis,” World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/csr/disease/smallpox/clinical-diagnosis/en/.

[3] “Smallpox,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smallpox.

[4] Andrew George, “Judging Jenner: Was His Smallpox Experiment Really Unethical?” The Conversation, February 16, 2016, http://theconversation.com/judging-jenner-was-his-smallpox-experiment-really-unethical-54362.

[5] “Timeline,” The History of Vaccines, https://www.historyofvaccines.org/timeline#EVT_65.

[6] Stefan Riedel, “Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination,” BUMC Proceedings 18, no. 1 (2005): 24.

[7] “Louis Pasteur and the Development of the Attenuated Vaccine,” VBI Vaccines, November 23, 2016, https://www.vbivaccines.com/wire/louis-pasteur-attenuated-vaccine/.

[8] “Archives of the Smallpox Eradication Programme,” World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/archives/fonds_collections/bytitle/fonds_6/en/.

[9] “History of Smallpox,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 30, 2016, https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/history/history.html.

[10] “Immunization Coverage,” World Health Organization, reviewed January 2018, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs378/en/.

[11] “Immunization Coverage.”