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"Vaccine facts" seems to have become a surprisingly loaded term over the last couple years, but the history of vaccines is actually full of heated opinions and outlandish ideas. In this video, we drill down to just the facts about vaccination and the history of vaccines. You'll learn about the first vaccine, what an mRNA vaccine does (and does not) do, and why anti-vaxxers are not a new phenomenon.

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British physician Edward Jenner is usually  thought of as the father of vaccination,

but did you know that someone else intro'd  inoculation to England several decades


In other parts of the world, in fact,  the practice had been happening for centuries. Hi, I’m Erin McCarthy.

We're covering that and  much more in this episode of the List Show,

from historical anti-vaxxers  to a heartwarming "fact"

about the polio vaccine that isn’t  exactly what it seems. Let's get started. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, born in 1689, was  a poet and essayist married to the British

ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

When she  was 26, a bout with smallpox left her with

facial scars. She and her husband moved to  Constantinople—modern-day Istanbul, Turkey—in

1716. Lady Mary explored the city’s  women-only apartments and public baths,

where she witnessed Ottoman women  inoculating people against “distemper.”

In a letter, she described the women applying  “the matter of the best sort of small-pox” to

small cuts in patients’ arms or legs, after  which they would suffer a very mild case

of the disease and then recover.

No one  ever died, she wrote, and following the

procedure they were immune to the illness. Montagu was so convinced of the practice’s

safety that she intended to introduce  it to the British medical establishment. In 1721, a smallpox outbreak in London prompted  her to have her daughter inoculated—the

first known instance of the procedure in England.

But many doctors remained skeptical. That August,

an experiment that would never be approved  today was conducted at Newgate


A group of inmates were given the option of  freedom if they submitted to inoculation and

lived. They all survived. After that, the Princess  of Wales inoculated some of her children—again,

they were fine—and the  procedure became widespread. The princess wasn’t the only European royal  worried about viruses.

Russia’s Catherine the

Great summoned an English doctor, Thomas Dimsdale,  to Saint Petersburg in 1768 to administer a

smallpox inoculation to herself and her son,  Grand Duke Paul. The operations had high stakes. While Dimsdale prepared the injection, there  were said to be a number of carriages at the

ready in case something went wrong and  the doctor needed to escape an angry mob

of the empress’s followers.

Fortunately, the  top-secret procedure went off without a hitch. The same year as the Newgate prison experiment,  the Massachusetts Bay Colony was suffering from

its own smallpox outbreak. Years earlier,  the colony tried to keep disease at bay by

initiating the first quarantine in the  North American colonies.

Governor John

Winthrop ordered all ships arriving from the  Caribbean, in which yellow fever was widespread,

to remain off shore until cases of “ye plague  or like in[fectious] diseases” were resolved. Epidemics still struck the colony fairly  regularly. It would take a while for

inoculation to be adopted on this side of the  Atlantic, but information supporting the practice

already existed in a number of cultures.

By the early 1700s, forms of inoculation

had been practiced in India and  China for more than a century. The written record is a bit spare, with explicit  references dating only to around the mid-1500s. Some experts believe the practice  significantly predates that record,

though—the information may have been  passed down as part of an oral tradition.

By 1714, a couple of years before Lady  Mary Montagu arrived in the Ottoman Empire,

a physician named Emmanuel Timonious  wrote about how inoculation was becoming

increasingly prevalent in Constantinople in a  letter printed in Philosophical Transaction. Two years later, Puritan minister Cotton  Mather—best known for his role in the Salem

Witch Trials—wrote his own letter supporting  Timonious’s account. Mather probably hadn’t

witnessed inoculation at this point, but  he had secondhand knowledge of the practice

from an enslaved man who worked for him.

Mather  described an incident in which he asked the man,

whom he called Onesimus, if he had ever  had smallpox. Onesimus “ … answered,

both yes and no,” and described  how people in his homeland applied

infectious pus to patients’ scratched  arms, rendering them immune to the disease. Again, the written record makes it hard to  trace this tradition.

For what it’s worth,

a late 18th-century French writer later  claimed that many West Africans had been

conducting inoculation since “time immemorial.”

In any case, when Boston was hit by a smallpox

epidemic in 1721, Mather urged doctors to use  inoculation in their fight against the disease. As in England, many were skeptical. Some argued  that inoculation went against God’s commandments.

Someone even threw a grenade through  Mather’s window with a note that read,   “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam you. I’ll  inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you!”

One doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, did inoculate  nearly 300 patients. The process was far

from perfect—roughly 2 percent of those patients  died.

But compared to smallpox’s fatality rate of

about 15 to 30 percent, Boylston’s meticulous  records demonstrated to many that inoculation

had the potential to save lots of lives. Inoculation—or the lack thereof—played a

role in the lives of America’s founders. Benjamin  Franklin became a strong proponent of the medical

intervention after losing his 4-year-old  son, Francis, to smallpox in November 1736.

Some in Philadelphia began a rumor that  the boy was inoculated but had died anyway. Franklin set the record straight,  and later wrote in his autobiography,   “I long regretted bitterly and still regret  that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents, who  omit that operation on the supposition that

they should never forgive themselves if  a child died under it; my example showing

that the regret may be the same either way, and  that therefore the safer should be chosen.”

In 1764, the future second president John  Adams was inoculated in Boston during yet

another smallpox outbreak there.

At the  time, doctors accompanied the procedure with

an unnecessary regimen of purging and sweating  (via large doses of mercury and, oddly enough,

milk). Adams wrote in his autobiography that the  treatment caused him to drool so much that every

tooth in his head loosened. “By such means they  conquered the smallpox, which I had very lightly,

but they rendered me incapable ... of speaking  or eating in my old age, in short … the

same situation with my friend Washington.”

Speaking of Washington, the commander-in-chief

insisted that all of his troops in the  Continental Army get inoculated. In 1776,

half of the 10,000 Continental Army soldiers  in Quebec, including their commander, came

down with smallpox.

The unit retreated, leaving  the territory in British hands (and arguably

leading to Canada’s status as a separate country  today). The defeat may have convinced Washington

to mandate inoculation for the army in 1777. Inoculation did have a few drawbacks.

One was

that newly inoculated patients could pass on the  disease as they recovered from their mild case. And there was no standardized dosage to  ensure that the case would, in fact, be mild. It was better than nothing, but left a lot to  be desired.

Then, Edward Jenner came along. Jenner’s big breakthrough came from looking  into how exposure to a less-deadly, related

virus conferred immunity to a deadlier one. In  1796, he treated a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes

for a cowpox infection, which she said she got  from her cow, Blossom.

In his famous experiment,

he took pus from Nelmes’s sores and inoculated  an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps with it. Phipps recovered, and Jenner inoculated the kid  with smallpox material. Phipps did not get sick.

The procedure in which a weaker or dead virus  confers immunity became known as “vaccination,”

after the Latin word vacca, meaning cow. Technically, in Jenner’s day, at least,

inoculation referred to the act of applying  infectious material to a skin lesion,

while vaccination referred specifically to  applying less-dangerous cowpox material to

avert smallpox. Today, the two terms are often  used interchangeably to refer to any practice

in which something is introduced to the body to  help the immune system protect against disease.

Back in the 18th century, the bovine  connection gave some people the wrong

idea. Many were suspicious of a  medical treatment derived from a cow,

not to mention the concept of purposefully  getting one disease to prevent another. Some claimed that mingling animal and human  substances went against Biblical tenets.

A famous historical anti-vaxxer named Benjamin  Moseley even warned people that vaccinated might

lead to “quadrupedan sympathy.” In other  words, (at least half-seriously, it seems),

Mosely thought an unlucky vaccinated  person might become attracted to cows. Illustrator James Gillray captured  the hysteria with a cartoon depicting

miniature cows morphing out of people’s bodies. Of course, none of those dire predictions came


But what happened to Blossom, the only  actual cow involved in the story? She likely

recovered from the cowpox infection, since its  lesions tend to heal within a month or so. Today,

her hide is preserved and mounted at St.

George’s  Medical School in London, and one of her horns

is part of the collection at Dr. Jenner’s House,  Museum, and Garden in Glouceterishire, England. One problem with vaccination, however, was that  scientists couldn’t yet manufacture a vaccine.

The viral material had to come from an  already-infected person. That made public

health vaccination campaigns difficult. The  Spanish government found an unconventional,

highly unethical workaround in 1803.

King Carlos IV wanted to vaccinate people

in Spain’s American and Philippine colonies. Physicians came up with a plan involving a ship,

a crew, and 22 orphaned children. The idea was  to set sail and then vaccinate the children in

succession, with one child providing the cowpox  pus to the next one, and so on, forming a human

chain and ensuring access to the valuable viral  material.

While the kids were eventually settled

in Mexico, the captain of the voyage, Francisco  Javier de Balmis, continued his round-the-world

vaccination mission for the next four years. Vaccination became the gold standard in medicine

because it was so much safer than inoculation. In  fact, the UK banned variolation—another name for

inoculation with the smallpox virus—in 1840 with  the passage of the national Vaccination Act.


law also provided free vaccines for the poor—the  first instance of free medical services in the UK. Vaccination for newborns became  mandatory there in 1853, and in 1855,

Massachusetts passed the first state law in  the U. S. requiring them for school children.

With the need for vaccine doses growing every  year, scientists devised a method for propagating

cowpox among calves for use in vaccines, a  product they called “animal vaccine.” Basically,

scientists harvested infectious fluid from  the cows for use in smallpox vaccines. This

was safer than transferring pus from one person  to another, because it cut down on the risk of

transmitting other diseases, such as syphilis. After a Boston physician introduced the concept

to U.

S. researchers, entrepreneurs quickly  opened “vaccine farms” to increase production. The New York City Board of Health opened  a vaccine farm in Clifton, New Jersey,

in 1876 to raise cows infected with cowpox. By  1897, more than 14 major vaccine farms operated

across at least six states.

Dryvax, a smallpox  vaccine manufactured by Wyeth Laboratories and

used for most of the 20th century in vaccination  campaigns, was derived from a strain harvested at

the New York Board of Health vaccine farm. Smallpox received a lot of attention because

it was so deadly. But it wasn’t the only viral  disease for which scientists raced to create


French chemist Louis Pasteur developed  the rabies vaccine in the 1880s. Previously,

Pasteur discovered that bacteria  lost their virulence over time,

a process he called attenuation. In a  landmark 1881 experiment, he vaccinated a

group of livestock twice with attenuated anthrax  vaccine and left a control group unvaccinated.

About two weeks later, he exposed all of the  animals to live anthrax. Within a few days—you

guessed it—the unvaccinated sheep and goats had  died while the vaccinated ones remained healthy. So, Pasteur tried a similar tactic with  the lethal rabies virus.

He and a colleague

extracted tissue from rabid dogs and injected  a solution of it into a series of rabbits,

where the virus weakened. Pasteur air-dried the  rabbits’ spinal cords—exposure to oxygen reduced

the virus until it was no longer infectious—and  then administered the material to 50 more dogs,

who remained healthy. Seems like a success, right?

Two problems: Pasteur was not a medical doctor,

and he definitely didn’t have a license to test  his vaccine in humans. But that’s exactly what

he did when the mother of 9-year-old Joseph  Meister brought the boy, who had been bitten

by a rabid dog, to Pasteur’s laboratory. Over  the course of 11 days, Meister received 13 shots

and survived.

As an adult, Meister worked as a  caretaker at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. There’s a long-standing legend attached to  the development of the polio vaccine in the

early 1950s. Numerous researchers were  working on polio vaccines at the time,

using forms of a live polio virus.

Jonas Salk,  a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh

with funding from the National Foundation for  Infantile Paralysis, developed a vaccine using

an inactivated virus, which was administered by  injection. He took what seemed like risky steps—he

tested the vaccine by inoculating his family,  and then launched a clinical trial of more than

a million children aged between 6 and 9. But the  trial showed the vaccine prevented infection.

Salk did not patent the vaccine, allegedly because  he wanted it given to children far and wide

regardless of cost. “Could you patent the sun?”  he asked in a televised conversation with Edward

R. Murrow in 1955. People took it as a moral  statement against patenting medical breakthroughs,

but the reality is a bit more complicated.

Salk’s polio vaccine was the culmination of

a massive effort by public and private  entities. The year it was unveiled,

according to Claire Gaudiania’s The Greater Good,

80 million people donated money to the  National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. As Brian Palmer argued in a piece for Slate, in  this particular case, patenting and profiting

off a vaccine that had been developed with so  many donations would have been seen as “double

charging.” (In fact, many of those donations were  small sums from the not-particularly-well-off,

helping give rise to the Foundation’s  current name, the March of Dimes.)

Salk’s public profile as a savior of children  led TV viewers to assume his poetic rhetorical

question was meant to apply to all vaccines, in  a purely altruistic vein, but it may well have

been more contingent on the details of  his particular vaccine and its origins.

Viewers also didn’t know that the National  Foundation for Infantile Paralysis *had*

actually looked into patenting the technology. Its lawyers concluded that the vaccine wouldn’t

be patentable because of “prior art”—in  other words, because other researchers had

been working on polio vaccines and Salk had built  on their research, his invention wasn’t unique. It’s not clear that the Foundation ever intended  to profit on this hypothetical patent—it

might have just been a way of preventing other  companies from making low-quality knockoffs

of the vaccine—but it does, perhaps, undercut  some of the nobility of Salk’s lofty question.

Albert Sabin later developed a polio vaccine  using the live polio virus that could be

administered orally, which made distribution  much easier. And at the height of the Cold War,

Sabin and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail  Chumakov, collaborated on a vaccination

campaign in the U. S.

S. R. In 1959, 10 million  Soviet children received Sabin’s oral vaccine.

In 1960, 100 million people behind the  Iron Curtain were vaccinated. In another

instance of “vaccine diplomacy,”  the U. S.

S. R., with U. S. funding,

provided millions of doses of a freeze-dried  smallpox vaccine to developing countries.

We couldn’t give you facts about vaccines without  mentioning the COVID-19 vaccines that are giving

us a way out of this pandemic. The Pfizer and  Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines. And while it might seem that this technology just  emerged from nowhere, scientists have been working

on the core ideas for decades and had even tested  mRNA vaccines before the current pandemic.

mRNA vaccines don’t contain any of the  coronavirus, live or dead.


when you receive your shot, molecules called  “messenger RNA” tell your cells to start

creating a “spike protein” that’s found on the  coronavirus itself. Then, your immune system

makes antibodies against that protein. You already have mRNA in every cell of your

body—it’s the protein that transports messages  from your DNA to the rest of your cells.


mRNA vaccines use the same kind of molecule to  tell your cells to make a harmless bit of the

coronavirus’s spike protein. After the protein is  made, your cells break down the vaccine’s mRNA. Despite what some misinformed online “researchers”  might claim, the vaccine doesn’t change your DNA.

And no, the shots don’t contain microchips. If you’ve enjoyed the Mental Floss channel this

year, please consider subscribing or sharing one  of our videos with a friend. Thanks for watching!