In the late 1700s and early 1800s, people already knew what folks like Jenny McCarthy are preaching today: vaccines are toxic, and worse yet, likely immoral; God, it was claimed, created smallpox for a reason, and humans had no business interfering. Smallpox was incurable, and it killed millions of people a year. Those that survived were often scarred for life. And then Dr. Jenner noticed that the girls who milked cows seemed immune to the disease.
He surmised that their exposure to cowpox, a related but much more benign disease, somehow conferred this immunity.
"Now his experiments are not what we would do today," says Ruggere. "He took cowpox [and] gave it to a small boy. The boy got a good case of cowpox and was healed. Then he took smallpox and injected it into the same child."
The 8-year-old never developed smallpox. Jenner had just come up with the world's first vaccine.
Things were a little rough-and-tumble back in those days. But disease was still largely a mystery, and Jenner's claim was derided:
People adopted a Jenny-like approach, fearing all sorts of things would happen if they allowed themselves to be injected with the vaccine. Why, cows could grow out of your head!