The First Vaccine — The Art of Chinese Viriolation
Smallpox was one of the worst diseases to ever afflict mankind, claiming hundreds of millions, if not billions of lives throughout all of history. Thus, it is no wonder that the first vaccines were developed to guard against smallpox. The first proto-vaccines were practiced in China in the 15th century, perhaps as early as the 10th century. The Chinese method was nothing like modern vaccination methods, but was an early form of viriolation (inoculation against smallpox), a method first coined by the English physician Edward Jenner. The early Chinese method of viriolation was to take the dried out scabs of smallpox victims. The scabs would then be ground into a powder, then blown through a pipe into the nostrils of the patient. There was a bit of ceremony behind the act; typically viriolation was done with a decorative silver pipe, and boys were viriolated through the right nostril while girls were viriolated through the left nostril.
While the Chinese at the time had no knowledge of germ theory and little knowledge of immunology, the purpose of this was to infect the patient with a mild form of smallpox. Indeed, the dried out scabs would contain weakened or dead smallpox virus, which the human immune system could easily fight off or at least obtain an immunological memory from its antigens. Viriolation became popular in China, especially among nobles and the upper class. One doctor named Zhang Yan boasted that he had successfully viriolated up to 9,000 people. In the 18th century a Japanese physician reported that around 80%-90% of China’s upper class families had their children viriolated.
The practice of Chinese viriolation was not without risks, as the virus could mutate and the patient become infected with full blown smallpox. However, the benefits far outweighed the risks in an age when smallpox decimated entire societies. Over time the Chinese would perfect their technique, finding easier and safer ways to infect patients. Their methods would spread across the Silk Road, being adopted in India, the Middles, and by the 18th century in Europe. It was then that Dr. Edward Jenner would experiment with various viriolation methods. It was in 1796 that he would develop the first modern vaccine by inoculating patients with cowpox, a disease similar to cowpox but much less deadly, and thus make them immune to smallpox. Today, the use of vaccines are a staple of modern society. The last case of smallpox occurred in 1977.
Part of the human stomach dissected by Edward Jenner (1749-1823). The stomach has been flattened & injected with wax to highlight veins and arteries and the stomach wall, likely to be used as a teaching aid. (c.1790-1823).