Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


MUCH ON OUR minds these days, the word “vaccine” has interesting etymology and important current usage. Here are tidbits gleaned from my usual Internet sleuthing.

Dictionary Definition. Merriam-Webster says a vaccine is “a preparation that is administered (as by injection) to stimulate the body’s immune response against a specific infectious disease. a: an antigenic preparation of a typically inactivated or attenuated (see ATTENUATED sense 2) pathogenic agent (such as a bacterium or virus) or one of its components or products (such as a protein or toxin). b: a preparation of genetic material (such as a strand of synthesized messenger RNA) that is used by the cells of the body to produce an antigenic substance (such as a fragment of virus spike protein).

The second portion of this lengthy definition has a timely ring to it, what with mention of “messenger RNA” and virus “spike protein.”

Vaccine’s Etymology. The word “vaccine” dates from 1882, tracing back to the Latin vacca “cow.” Details are offered by Susan Brink in “What’s the Real Story About the Milkmaid and the Smallpox Vaccine?”, NPR’s online Goats and Soda, February 1, 2018.

Image by Xaver Xylophon

“Once upon a time, a long time ago,” Susan Brink writes, “there was a beautiful milkmaid. Her face was flawless, her complexion peaches and cream, her smile confident as she bragged, ‘I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox. I shall never have an ugly pockmarked face.’ ” 

The tale continues, “A 13-year-old orphan boy heard the milkmaid’s boastful declaration of immunity—or so the story goes. The boy was Edward Jenner, an apprentice to a country surgeon. Jenner’s name would one day be famous for developing the world’s first vaccine, which would eventually rid the earth of the scourge of smallpox. And the story of his boyhood inspiration for developing the vaccine is a classic of medical history, told in an 1837 biography and repeated endlessly over the years.”

Young Doctor Edward Jenner inoculates a child against smallpox. Image from the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

“Jenner’s work went down in history,” Brink writes, “as the first scientific attempt to control an infectious disease through vaccination. Nearly two centuries later, on May 8, 1980, the World Health Organization announced that the world was free of smallpox.”

“But now,” she notes, “Dr. Arthur Boylston has blown the lid off the milkmaid story in a commentary in the latest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine: ‘The Myth of the Milkmaid.’ ”

Boylston’s Assessment. “In fact,” Boylston writes, “the milkmaid story is a myth invented by Jenner’s biographer, John Baron, 13 years after Jenner’s death….”

Instead, Boylston says, “Two hundred fifty years ago, an almost-forgotten country doctor made an observation while inoculating a group of farmers against smallpox. Although John Fewster never appreciated the importance of his discovery, he told his colleagues what he had found, setting in motion a process that led to the development of the smallpox vaccine and the eventual eradication of the virus. All immunizations arguably have their origins in this event.”

Fewster was a country surgeon based in Gloustershire. Together with colleagues, in 1768 he started inoculating people against smallpox and found that some people failed to react to the inoculation because they had already developed immunity.

One farmer, observing he had never had smallpox, said, “I have had the Cow Pox lately to a violent degree, if that’s any odds.” What’s more, Fewster found that others exhibiting no response to smallpox inoculations had all had cowpox as well. 

Boylston notes, “Fewster described his observation to his medical society, which met at the Ship Inn in Alveston and was composed of about seven other local surgeons and apothecaries. Among them were the Ludlow brothers, Daniel and Edward. In 1768, Jenner was their apprentice. He probably heard from them about the phenomenon that would ensure his fame.” 

The beautiful milkmaid with the peaches-and-cream complexion? She was in the imagination of biographer John Baron. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: