The Vaccination Experiments of Benjamin Waterhouse

Rare Books and Special Collections
Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

A Catalog of the Exhibit

Benjamin Waterhouse

Rembrandt Peale (1770-1860)
Portrait of Benjamin Waterhouse, circa 1833

This portrait of Waterhouse at the age of 79, attributed to American artist Rembrandt Peale, was on display at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.

Gift of Malcolm C. Ware to the Harvard Medical Library, 1974

Smallpox—it is an ancient, terrifying, and deadly disease which has afflicted humanity for at least 2000 years. In its extreme form, the virus destroyed the oil glands of the skin, causing a rash which later formed pustules and scabs. Internal bleeding and damage to the heart, liver, and lungs followed, leading to death. The mortality rate was high, and survivors could be blinded or scarred for life.

But today, smallpox is the only naturally occurring disease which is considered to be eradicated. In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) began an ambitious and costly campaign to end the threat of smallpox through systematic vaccination. The last endemic smallpox infection was recorded in 1977 and the last known case of death in 1978. The WHO declared the disease completely eradicated two years later. Discussion over the elimination of the last remaining stocks of smallpox virus—held at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Russia—is now in progress. Those stocks are slated for destruction in 2002.


The Cow-Pock

James Gillray (1757-1815)
The Cow-Pock, or, the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!
(London : H. Humphrey, 1802)

As the first professional caricaturist in England, James Gillray is usually remembered for his political and royal satires, but this engraving, poking fun at the work of Edward Jenner, shows the dire consequences of injecting cowpox matter into humans.

Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Norton Ganz to the Harvard Medical Library, 1990

The long road to the eradication of smallpox in the United States begins two hundred years ago, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Benjamin Waterhouse studied the researches of English physician Edward Jenner and followed with his own experiments. Dr. Waterhouse then fostered an aggressive campaign to inoculate Americans against smallpox—the disease he called the "devouring monster." In the bicentennial year of Benjamin Waterhouse's vaccination experiments, the Countway Library of Medicine drew on its extraordinary collection of rare books, pamphlets, broadsides, manuscripts, letters, and artifacts—many gifts from members of the Waterhouse family—to commemorate the first efforts to slay that devouring monster.



Edward Jenner


Dr. Jenner, the Discoverer of Cow Pox Inoculation
(London : J. Robins, 1823)

Gift of Dr. Edwin Allen Locke to the Harvard Medical Library, 1943

Jenner's Discovery

In the late eighteenth century, it was common medical practice to inoculate patients against smallpox by using matter from actual smallpox pustules. A moderate case of the disease served to immunize the patient against a more virulent outbreak. But the risks associated with this procedure were great: the disease contracted could sometimes be severe, and smallpox could then be further spread among the population. English physician Edward Jenner (1749-1823) discovered that individuals who had contracted cowpox, a mild disease often spread to human beings by contact with the teats and udders of cows, were resistant to smallpox infection, and he came to believe that cowpox matter could be transmitted from one person to another, conferring immunity to smallpox.

William Skelton (1763-1848)
Hand of Sarah Nelmes, 1798

This colored plate appears in the first edition of Edward Jenner's An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of Variolæ Vaccinæ and depicts the cowpox pustules on the hand of dairymaid Sarah Nelmes. Cowpox matter from these pustules was used to vaccinate the boy James Phipps in 1796.

Hand of Sarah Nelmes

On May 14, 1796, using cowpox matter from the hand of a milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, Edward Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps. The boy contracted cowpox and soon recovered. On July 1, Phipps was then inoculated with smallpox matter. When the boy failed to contract smallpox, Jenner believed he had demonstrated a safe and effective method—vaccination, derived from vacca, the Latin word for cow—to immunize humanity against the terrors of smallpox and, ultimately, to eradicate the disease entirely. Edward Jenner soon published his findings as An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolæ Vaccinæ (1798). The rest of his career centered around vaccination research. He said, "I shall myself continue to prosecute this inquiry, encouraged by the pleasing hope of its becoming essentially beneficial to mankind." He promoted vaccination, published a number of pamphlets on the subject, and kept physicians supplied with usable cowpox matter. Jenner received grants from Parliament of 30,000 for his research, was awarded honorary degrees from both Oxford University and Harvard University, and saw a national vaccination program established in England in 1808.


Jenner's Inquiry

Edward Jenner (1749-1823)
An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolæ Vaccinæ
(London: printed for the author by Sampson Low, 1798)

The first edition of Edward Jenner's publication contains his evidence that inoculation with cowpox vaccine matter could be a preventive against smallpox. Pages 32-35 concern Case XVII, an eight-year-old named James Phipps, who was inoculated with cowpox matter taken from Sarah Nelmes, a dairymaid, on May 14, 1796. Subsequent inoculation with smallpox demonstrated the boy's immunity to the disease. The case was Jenner's first vaccination of a human patient.

The title-page of this copy of An Inquiry bears a presentation inscription by Edward Jenner to the Reverend John Clinch.

Gift of Dr. Michael Freebern Gavin to the Boston Medical Library, 1905


Edward Jenner also found a means to preserve dried vaccine matter on quills and in glass for several months at a time and was then able to send samples to other physicians—among them Benjamin Waterhouse.

First publication discussing Jenner's work

"The Following Important Account of a New Publication in Great-Britain, by Dr. Jenner, Entitled 'An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolæ Vaccinæ, or Cow Pox,' is Extracted from the Analytical Review for July, 1798", Medical Repository, volume 2, number 2, 1798

This anonymous article, appearing in December 1798, is the first American publication to discuss the work of Edward Jenner.

Deposited by the Essex South District Medical Society in the Boston Medical Library, 1906

Jenner medal

, circa 1800

A number of medals were struck to commemorate Edward Jenner's research and the centennial of the first vaccinations. While most depict the physician himself, the bronze example here shows an angel draping a garland around the neck of a cow surrounded by dancing children. The medal was crafted by Friedrich Wilhelm Loos.

From the Storer Memorial Collection of Medical Medals; gift of Dr. Horatio R. Storer to the Boston Medical Library in memory of Dr. David Humphreys Storer, 1900

Lock of Edward Jenner's hair

Lock of Edward Jenner's hair
, circa 1823

Gift of Dr. Arthur T. Davies and Sir William Osler to the Warren Anatomical Museum 1907, and transferred to the Harvard Medical Library, 1947


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