But then, in 1774, a British farmer named Benjamin Jesty had an idea. When smallpox struck his small town, Jesty decided not to variolate his family. Instead, he took a cue from local folklore, found a cow infected with cowpox (a disease similar to but less dangerous than smallpox), and jabbed the infected pus from its udders into the arms of his wife and sons with a darning needle, like a scene straight out of a body piercing purveyor's worst nightmares. Nightmarish as it sounds, however, it worked -- though he didn't have a fancy name for the procedure, farmer Jesty had discovered the vaccination for a plague that had wantonly slaughtered humans since about 10,000 BC.
Why Didn't It Take Off?
When Jesty's neighbors discovered that he had put cow inside his wife and children in some way other than the one true manner in which God intended, they brandished so many pitchforks that he moved his family to a village 50 miles away. Plus, Jesty was a farmer, not a doctor -- he wanted to spend his days milking cows, not draining boils and having literally everyone asking him to "look at this thing on my back."
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There was only one fluid he liked squeezing out.
Jesty's vaccine remained largely unknown for 22 years, until fellow Englishman Edward Jenner independently discovered it in a terrifyingly similar cow pus experiment in 1796. Jenner published his findings two years later, and the practice gradually became more commonplace until finally, in 1840, the British government banned variolation and made vaccination mandatory.