Vaccination and innoculation
Sir, – Prof Thomas Cotter is too sanguine about smallpox inoculation, introduced into England by Lady Mary Montagu (January 22nd). Basically, the procedure was that material from infected smallpox pustules was inoculated into the skin of those who had not yet contracted the condition, thereby inducing smallpox, sometimes, but not always, in a milder form than the naturally acquired disease. Inoculation had an appreciable mortality; furthermore, it often induced devastating epidemics of smallpox in areas that had been free from the condition.
Vaccination in contrast by a similar method used infected material from individuals with cowpox. While those so vaccinated contracted cowpox, this was a short-lived innocuous febrile illness. Critically, vaccination reliably conferred immunity to the far greater scourge of smallpox. Edward Jenner’s development of vaccination was arguably the greatest single advance in the history of human healthcare. Many previously common virulent conditions now rarely occur and some, including smallpox itself, are eradicated.
Magnificent and all as Jenner’s introduction of vaccination was, it was of course already long practised in Cork. According to John Milner-Barry, who, in 1800, two years after Jenner’s discovery, introduced vaccination to Cork, the protective effect of cowpox infection (shinach, in Irish) was well known in west Cork. Milkmaids often deliberately had themselves infected with cowpox to protect their complexions and save themselves from the miseries of smallpox. – Yours, etc,
Dr NEIL CRONIN,