A Brief Timeline of the History of Vaccines
If you were born in the 1600s, you would have been lucky to live to see 50. Today, it’s common for people to live well into their 70s, 80s or even 90s. Life expectancy has soared since 1900, adding 30 years to the average lifespan — and vaccines are a large part of the reason why.
After more than 200 years of medical practice and innovation, vaccination is still the most effective method of preventing the spread of infectious diseases. From the development of the smallpox vaccine to today's COVID-19 vaccines, the history of vaccination is fascinating. What follows is a collection of key moments in the development and implementation of vaccines across the world.
1000: First Chinese Inoculation
Several records from the 1000-1500 B.C. describe an inoculation procedure in which smallpox scabs are ground up and blown into the nostril.
1661: Royals Approve Inoculation
Emperor K’ang survived smallpox as a child and became a proponent of inoculation.
1714: Inoculation (Pre-Smallpox)
Inoculation — also called “variolation” — was introduced to New England and Britain in the early 18th century.
The following was read to the Royal Society by John Woodward in 1714: “The writer of this ingenious discourse observes, in the first place, that the Circassians, Georgians and other Asiatics have introduced this practice of procuring the smallpox by a sort of inoculation for about the space of 40 years, among the Turks and others at Constantinople.”
1768: Russian Royals Successfully Receive Vaccines
Catherine the Great of Russia was successfully inoculated in secret to avoid upsetting the people if something went wrong.
1770: Cowpox Experiment
An English doctor named Edward Jenner began testing out his hypothesis that previous infection with cowpox could prevent someone from becoming seriously ill with smallpox.
1777: Mandatory Military Inoculation Enforced
George Washington decided to enforce mandatory smallpox inoculations for any troops who hadn’t already survived the disease.
1796: Smallpox Is Eradicated
After observing that milkmaids who had previously caught cowpox did not contract smallpox, physician Edward Jenner developed and introduced the first vaccine against smallpox.
It remains one of the deadliest viruses humanity has ever seen, and the only one to be successfully eradicated.
1800: Vaccination Comes to America
Harvard professor Benjamin Waterhouse wanted to set an example, so he vaccinated his own children to prove they were safe.
1813: The First U.S. Vaccine Agency is Established
James Madison was a strong believer in vaccines, establishing a National Vaccine Agency with Dr. James Smith at the head.
1820: Smallpox Deaths Are Down
After the smallpox vaccine became widely distributed, it lowered the number of deaths drastically, with 7,858 deaths from smallpox compared to 18,447 deaths in the previous decade.
1853: Vaccination Becomes Mandatory in the U.K.
In 1853, the U.K. began requiring smallpox vaccination in newborns by the age of 3 months. Parents could face fines or imprisonment if they refused to comply.
1879: Louis Pasteur Creates the First Live Attenuated Bacterial Vaccine
When Louis Pasteur discovered the chicken cholera vaccine, he revolutionized work in infectious diseases and immunology.
“The notion of using a weakened form of the disease to provide immunity was not new, but Pasteur was the first to take the process to the laboratory, impacting all virologists who followed after him,” according to VBI Vaccines Inc.
1884: Pasteur Develops First Attenuated Viral Vaccine for Rabies
Until Louis Pasteur developed the rabies vaccine, “vaccines” had referred only to the cowpox inoculation for smallpox.
This spurred vaccine research all over the globe, leading to immunization from diphtheria (1888), plague (1897), tuberculosis (1927), yellow fever (1936), measles (1963), mumps (1967), rubella (1969), varicella (1995) and rotavirus (1998).
1893: Smallpox Outbreak Occurs
A smallpox outbreak in Muncie, Indiana, was caused by low vaccination rates.
1911: Heat-Killed Cholera Vaccine Is Developed
Waldemar Haffkine developed a heat-killed cholera vaccine, perhaps in recognition that the vaccine Wilhelm Kolle developed was easier to prepare and standardize.
1918: Spanish Flu Pandemic
The deadliest pandemic to date killed 20-50 million people globally, with one-third of the world’s population contracting influenza.
It wasn’t until 1942 that “a single vaccine for both types A and B was first developed.”
1921: BCG Vaccine First Used on Newborns to Fight Tuberculosis
The tuberculosis vaccine was developed over a span of 13 years by French bacteriologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin.
The BCG vaccine produces an immune response that partly protects infants and young children from serious forms of tuberculosis.
1936: Yellow Fever Vaccine Developed
Using embryonated chicken eggs, Max Theiler developed the first yellow fever vaccine.
It was tested on people the following year and quickly became the worldwide standard.
1945: First Flu Vaccine Approved
After thousands of soldiers died of influenza in the 1918 pandemic, the military was the first to test out the flu vaccine.
It was approved for civilian use the next year in 1946.
1955: The Polio Vaccine Is Approved
Developed by Dr. Jonas Salk “after a field trial involving 1.8 million Americans,” the polio vaccine was one of the most significant medical achievements of the century.
1963: Measles Vaccine Officially Licensed
After being tested on monkeys and then people, the measles vaccine was licensed in the U.S.
Almost 19 million doses were administered in the following 12 years.
2020: SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic and Vaccine Development
Due to an unprecedented allocation of resources and a reorganizing of infrastructure and the clinical trial process under Operation Warp Speed, the COVID-19 vaccine has been developed and brought to market — first by Moderna and later by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — in less than a year.
Previously, the fastest vaccine ever developed was the mumps vaccine in 1967, and that took four years. As many as a billion people could be immunized against coronavirus by the end of 2021.