Edward Jenner saved millions of lives, not by finding a cure for a disease but by stopping people from catching it: he created the first vaccine. Now, thanks to Jenner, no one catches smallpox, a horrible, deadly disease. Today, vaccines are used to stop the spread of equally awful diseases, saving lives without us even knowing it.

Diseases attack the body via micro-organisms. When a body is attacked by a disease it creates antibodies. These cling to the micro-organism - a virus or bacteria - stopping it from attacking the body and making it easier for the body to remove. A vaccine contains material from a disease micro-organism, but it cannot cause the disease because it only uses dead or weakened micro-organisms. The body reacts as if the disease was real, and creates antibodies which can stay in the blood for a very long time. If the person is exposed to the disease later their body recognises it and can defend against it quickly. The person is then immune to the disease.

The word vaccination was first used by Edward Jenner combining the latin word for cow - vacca with the word inoculation. Students may know the French - vache, Spanish - vaca, or Italian - vacca.

Isaac Cruikshank made the drawing to support Edward Jenner. Drawn just ten years after Jenner's discovery, the cherub in the corner is already calling him "the preserver of the human race". The inscription at the bottom reads "Vaccination against Smallpox: Mercenary and Merciless spreaders of Death and Devastation driven out of Society".

For more information, there are several flim clips available and extra quizzes from Dr Jenner's House: Birthplace of Vaccination.

Curriculum Links

Revolutionary ideas

Working scientifically

Scientific attitudes

  • understand that scientific methods and theories develop as earlier explanations are modified to take account of new evidence and ideas, together with the importance of publishing results and peer review
  • evaluate risks
  • Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901

Scottish Curriculum Links:



SCN 3-12a

Biological systems - Body systems and cells

I have explored the structure and function of organs and organ systems and can relate this to the basic biological processes required to sustain life.


SCN 3-13b

Biological systems - Body systems and cells

I have contributed to investigations into the different types of microorganisms and can explain how their growth can be controlled.


SCN 3-13c

Biological systems - Body systems and cells

I have explored how the body defends itself against disease and can describe how vaccines can provide protection.


SCN 4-12a

I can explain how biological actions which take place in response to external and internal changes work to maintain stable body conditions.

Literacy and English


LIT 3-06a / LIT 4-06a

Listening and talking - Finding and using information


LIT 3-07a

Listening and talking - Understanding, analysing and evaluating

I can show my understanding of what I listen to or watch by commenting, with evidence, on the content and form of short and extended texts.


LIT 4-07a

I can show my understanding of what I listen to or watch by giving detailed, evaluative comments, with evidence, about the content and form short and extended texts.


LIT 3-14a / LIT 4-14a

Reading - Finding and using information


LIT 3-16a

Reading - Understanding, analysing and evaluating


LIT 4-16a

Reading - Understanding, analysing and evaluating


Revolutionary ideas

Edward Jenner was born in Gloucestershire in 1749. He started training as a doctor from the age of only 14, and moved to London for three years when he was 21. In London he learned about using scientific experiments and observations to help cure his patients.


What is smallpox?

At this time, the disease smallpox was killing 400,000 Europeans every year. It killed about half the people who caught it. This horrible disease was difficult to avoid. About 12 days after catching smallpox the patient would have a fever and the first small blisters would appear on their body. If they were lucky, these pus-filled blisters would dry up and fall off in a month, leaving a scar, but the patient would survive. But for most people smallpox was fatal.

On the right is a modern image of a smallpox virus.


How did people try to avoid smallpox?

Even before Edward Jenner started studying smallpox, people knew you couldn't catch smallpox twice. Some people deliberately exposed themselves to small quantities of smallpox to bring on a small reaction in themselves. This was known as an inoculation (the word "vaccination" only started being used by Edward Jenner during his work). People received some immunity from doing this, but it wasn't entirely safe as healthy people exposed themselves to this deadly virus, and could catch the full disease.

Learning from milkmaids...

However, there was a safer way. It was reasonably well known at the time that milkmaids, who frequently caught cowpox (a similar disease that also infected cows), were immune to smallpox - they could be exposed to people with smallpox but would not get the disease themselves. We know now that this is because cowpox and smallpox are very similar viruses. Cowpox was a mild illness, much less dangerous than smallpox. Without understanding anything about viruses, or how diseases were spread, Edward Jenner came to the conclusion that something in the cowpox blister was making the milkmaids immune.

Key fact: People who had suffered from cowpox - a disease similar to smallpox - were subsequently immune to smallpox - they would never catch it.


Blossom the cow


Testing his theories...

Shockingly, he used an 8 year old boy, James Phipps, as a subject to practise on. He deliberately gave him cowpox, which was at least known to be harmless. The cowpox was taken from a milkmaid called Sarah Nelmes, who had caught it from a cow named Blossom (pictured above). Later, once James Phipps had recovered, Edward Jenner injected him with smallpox. He used the same small amount that people were using to inoculate themselves, but there was still a huge risk. The outcome was that James Phipps had no reaction: he was immune to smallpox.

Edward Jenner did not stop there. He inoculated (vaccinated) other people and published the results. Because smallpox was such a deadly disease and he had proven results, the vaccination was popular. But there were critics. Some people believed that giving a cow disease (cowpox) to a human would turn them into a cow.

Can you use your knowledge of other languages to work out where the word vaccination comes from?  Start by looking at which animal Edward Jenner used to create his vaccine.

Key fact: Edward Jenner used his scientific research into smallpox and cowpox to create a vaccine that saved many lives.



Have a look at this drawing made by Isaac Cruikshank in 1808...

Cartoon of Edward Jenner by Isaac Cruickshank

The picture shows Edward Jenner and his colleagues chasing off three people opposed to the smallpox vaccination.

Who was Isaac Cruikshank supporting in this drawing? Use the information below to help you.

The title along the bottom says:

VACCINATION against SMALL POX.  Mercenary & Merciless spreaders of Death & Destruction driven out of Society.

The cherub flying above say:

The Preserver of the Human Race

The man wearing red says:

Aye, Aye. I always order them to be constantly out in the air, in order to spread the contagion.

The knives the men carry say:

The curse of human kind.



How much do you know about immunity?

Test yourself with this online quiz here,

or download the pdf worksheet.



More about Edward Jenner from Dr Jenner's House: Birthplace of Vaccination

Dr Jenner's House: Birthplace of Vaccination is the house where Edward Jenner lived from 1785 to 1823. It is now open to members of the public to visit, and has a website where you can find out more about Edward Jenner's life and work.

Have a look at these ten short films about different aspects of Edward Jenner's work, then test your knowledge with these quizzes.