The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Vaccine’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

What connects vaccinations with cows? And how did a young boy and a milkmaid help to change the course of medical history? These questions are both related to the origin, or etymology, of the words ‘vaccine’ and ‘vaccination’. So let’s take a closer look at these words.

The history of vaccination is bound up with one of the most rampant diseases: smallpox. Smallpox killed many people who contracted it, and disfigured many of those who were lucky enough (relatively so) to survive the disease. The skin of smallpox survivors would often be marked by pocks, and would be described as ‘pock-marked’. A ‘pock’ is an Anglo-Saxon word for a skin eruption caused by disease – any disease, not just smallpox – and to the resultant scar left behind. From pocks we get the word ‘pox’.

People tried numerous ways of eradicating or at least treating this deadly disease. In the eighteenth century, a process of inoculation was developed.

The English poet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), herself a smallpox survivor with a disfigured face, inoculated her daughter – then a particularly risky thing to do – by making small cuts in her daughter’s skin and rubbing a tiny amount of pus from a live smallpox sore into the cuts.

Montagu had learnt about the practice of inoculation during her time in Turkey, where her husband had worked as the British ambassador. While there, she noticed that none of the local women in the Turkish baths had any smallpox scars.

The word ‘inoculation’, incidentally, is from the Latin inoculare, which literally means ‘into the eye’ or ‘into the bud’, because the word originally referred to the implanting of a bud of one plant into another plant.

But ‘vaccination’ is slightly different from ‘inoculation’, and it would not be until the 1790s that vaccines would really come into their own. In 1796 a Scottish physician named Edward Jenner (1749-1823) decided to try a new approach to preventing smallpox. Jenner took some pus from a pock on the hand of a milkmaid who had cowpox. He then got a small boy named James Phipps (the eight-year-old son of his gardener) and infected him with the pus from the milkmaid.

It became apparent that, once infected in this way with cowpox, the small boy – and everyone else Jenner tried his experiment on – was also immune to smallpox. Cowpox, by the way, is known as vaccinia, from the Latin vacca, which means ‘cow’. Because of his pioneering idea of vaccination, Jenner’s work is sometimes said to have saved more lives than the work of any other human who has ever lived.

However, we shouldn’t let Jenner take the credit alone. In actual fact, he was not the first person to ‘vaccinate’ someone against smallpox by using cowpox: in 1774, for instance, over twenty years before Jenner’s experiment, a Dorset farmer with the marvellous name Benjamin Jesty had successfully vaccinated with cowpox his wife and two children during a smallpox epidemic.

However, as is often the case with scientific discoveries, why Jesty’s experiment had worked was not fully apparent, and it was not until Jenner’s later work that the process became fully understood and scientifically robust.

Indeed, Jenner’s real contribution to immunology was not in vaccinating them per se, but in bombarding their immune systems with subsequent viruses, to prove that the cowpox infection provided long-lasting immunity, including cross-immunity to other diseases.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that until the late nineteenth century, much of the material used in early smallpox vaccines was taken from pocks occurring on people who had recently been vaccinated, rather than from people who – as had been the case with Jenner’s small boy – were naturally infected with cowpox.

Since the word ‘vaccine’ entered the English language (the OED’s earliest citation is from 1800, the same year that ‘vaccination’ made its debut), it has obviously been applied to other material prepared from the causative agent of a disease, which can be used in immunisation. Since 1986, it has also entered the world of computing: in that connection, a ‘vaccine’ is a program designed to detect and remove, or offer protection from, computer viruses.

Since 1850, a ‘vaccinationist’ has been someone who advocates for vaccinations, while ‘anti-vaccinationist’ followed in 1869.

This latter term has obviously been replaced by ‘anti-vaxxer’, which is found from 2001 (in an online Usenet group chat, where it’s misspelled as ‘anti-vaxer’), but the curious thing is that ‘anti-vax’ is almost two hundred years older: in an 1808 publication bearing the glorious title Obstetric Ejaculations on Cow Pock (not something we’d recommend trying at home as a means of vaccinating oneself), we find the following: ‘It is the consequence of a letter which I have received from the Secretary of the Antivac’s’.

And ‘Antivac’ and ‘Anti-Vack’ is how the word would generally be spelt until the current century, where the term is first recorded in 2020 on Twitter where a user that she doesn’t want to travel on a plane with any ‘anti-vaxes’ (curiously, those who complain about anti-vaxxers appear to be as prone to misspelling the term as those they attack).

Even Edward Jenner himself, pioneer of vaccination (or at least of testing the efficacy of vaccination), complained in a letter of 18 November 1812 of being attacked by people opposed to vaccination: ‘The Anti-Vacks are assailing me, I see, with all the force they can muster in the newspapers.’


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