The Sitting President Who Worked On The Smallpox Vaccine

By Heather Ramsey on Sunday, May 10, 2015
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“I am not surprised that men are not thankful to me; but I wonder that they are not grateful to God for the good which he has made me the instrument of conveying to my fellow-creatures.” —Edward Jenner

In A Nutshell

In 1796, English doctor Edward Jenner discovered the power of vaccination by using cowpox serum to protect healthy people against smallpox. Four years later, Jenner sent a sample of this smallpox vaccine to Harvard professor Benjamin Waterhouse, who enlisted the help of an amateur scientist in Virginia to test the vaccine on a larger population. Even after he became the third US President, Thomas Jefferson continued to work on the vaccine in his spare time. Benjamin Franklin also advocated vaccination. In 1980, the World Health Assembly declared that smallpox had been officially eradicated worldwide.

The Whole Bushel

In 1796, English doctor Edward Jenner discovered the power of vaccination by using cowpox serum to protect healthy people against smallpox. Four years later, Jenner sent a sample of this smallpox vaccine to Harvard professor Benjamin Waterhouse, who tried the vaccine on his own family. To prove the effectiveness of the serum, Waterhouse later exposed some of his family members to patients with smallpox. The vaccine was a success.

However, Waterhouse wanted to get the word out to a larger population. He couldn’t do it on his own, so he wrote to Thomas Jefferson, an amateur scientist in Virginia. Jefferson was excited about the idea, and the two men partnered long-distance to make it happen. Jefferson helped Waterhouse figure out how to package the vaccine to survive the trip to Virginia. In fact, even after he became the third US President, Thomas Jefferson continued to work on testing and promoting the new vaccine.

Jefferson had always been an advocate of “inoculation,” although this earlier method gave the actual disease to the patient in a milder form to provide immunity. Depending on the progression of the disease, it could be deadly to the person inoculated and to people who were exposed to that person, if he or she weren’t quarantined properly. Despite the risks, Jefferson had insisted on having himself, his children, and some of his slaves inoculated with this dangerous earlier method.

Benjamin Franklin was also an advocate of this more deadly form of inoculation. In his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, he published studies showing the value of inoculation. In one such study in 1730, 72 people were inoculated, but only 3 percent of the patients died. When people normally contracted the disease, about 25 percent died. Franklin also set up the Society for Inoculating the Poor Gratis so that the high cost of inoculation wouldn’t leave the poor unprotected. Franklin had a personal reason for his interest in inoculation: His young son, Francis Folger Franklin, had died of smallpox at just four years old.

Benjamin Franklin died several years before inoculation was replaced by the discovery of vaccination against smallpox. That left Jefferson to be the champion of the cause. He chose a teenage kitchen slave to be the first test case, but the vaccination didn’t “take.” Later, he vaccinated two more slaves. This time, the experiment was a success.

In short order, Jefferson had vaccinated almost 200 of his extended family and neighbors. When some of them were later exposed to smallpox, they were fine. Jefferson conducted these tests, keeping careful notes, all while he was President of the United States. The smallpox vaccine slowly spread. But it wasn’t until 1980 that the World Health Assembly declared that smallpox had been officially eradicated worldwide.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: James Gathany/CDC
PBS: World Health Organization declares smallpox eradicated
How We Get To Next: Why the American Founding Fathers Would Have Hated the Anti-Vaccination Movement
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello: Invisible Heroes: Battling Smallpox, Inoculation
NY Times: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Vaccines

  • Hillyard

    Very interesting. TJ is probably my favorite former President.