In the 20th century alone, more than 300 million people were killed due to smallpox. Smallpox is a virulent disease that has been around more millennia. In ancient Indian medical texts, this disease was referred to as masurika. Before modern vaccines were developed, ayurvedic doctors in India performed their own forms of treatment with the help of herbs and prayer. In the rural areas of Bengal and Northern India, the goddess Sitala was worshipped as it was said that she would protect her devotees from the disease of masurika. This was mainly because smallpox ravaged Bengal in the 18th century.
The accompanying famine and drought also made the residents of 18th century Bengal exceptionally susceptible to the disease. The doctors of erstwhile Bengal started to practice variolation, a process of inoculation that can be viewed as the precursor to vaccination.
In this process, material from smallpox/cowpox sores were given to people who never had smallpox. Did you know how the basis for vaccination began? In 1796 an English doctor named Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids who had gotten cowpox did not show any symptoms of smallpox after variolation.
The first experiment to test this theory involved milkmaid Sarah Nelmes and James Phipps, the 9 year-old son of Jenner’s gardener. Dr. Jenner took material from a cowpox sore on Nelmes’ hand and inoculated it into Phipps’ arm. Months later, Jenner exposed Phipps a number of times to variola virus, but Phipps never developed smallpox. More experiments followed, and, in 1801, Jenner published his treatise “On the Origin of the Vaccine Inoculation,” in which he summarized his discoveries and expressed hope that “the annihilation of the smallpox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be the final result of this practice.”
This process, though controversial in its time, protected a lot of people from contracting the virus and perishing because of it. Since there has been no “cure” for the virus, the practising doctors of 18th and 19th century Bengal played their part by providing variolation to the unaffected patients. Vaccination became widely accepted and gradually replaced the practice of variolation.
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