There is a good reason why vaccination comes from Latin for cow
27/08/2015 // Quick Insights // Text: Carsten Schroeder, Director Market Development Veterinary Applications at QIAGEN

In mediaeval times, smallpox was the scourge of Europe. Afflicting prince and pauper alike, it was one of the most common infectious diseases of the age and accounted for 10–15% of all deaths. Ever wondered why Queen Elizabeth I painted her face with white lead and vinegar? It was almost certainly in order to cover up the unsightly blemishes left by an attack of smallpox.

Even if there was no prospect of finding a cure for smallpox, Edward Jenner, an English country doctor, managed to save countless lives by preventing people from catching it in the first place. He did so by creating the world’s first vaccine.

In the late eighteenth century, Dr. Jenner observed that dairymaids seemed to be immune to smallpox. He concluded that this was because they had been infected with cowpox – a much less virulent disease. Discovering that a local dairymaid had contracted cowpox from a cow called Blossom, he took scrapings from a cowpox blister on the dairymaid’s hand and scratched them into the skin of the healthy eight-year-old son of his gardener. The boy appeared to be protected after being infected with smallpox virus six weeks later. Dr. Jenner than inoculated his own son with cowpox and found that he, too, was now evidently immune to smallpox.

Edward Jenner described the treatment he had developed with the Latin term ‘variolae vaccinae’ (‘smallpox of the cow’). By now, it should be fairly obvious where the word ‘vaccination’ came from!

Smallpox was the first human infection to be finally eradicated 1979 throughout the world. Thanks to Edward Jenner’s willingness to apply lessons learned from animal infections to human medicine and to the cow Blossom and her dairymaid who provided the antigen for the world´s first vaccination.*

For more insights and information also visit:

*Main source: Mary Dobson, Disease, the extraordinary stories behind history's deadliest killers, Metro Books, New York.