Among many other things, the past year has seen extensive debate on the issue of the rapidly developed vaccines for Covid-19, and their effects to try to halt the devastating spread of the disease.

Vaxxer/anti-vaxxer communities have sprung up, with passionate arguments on both sides for the pros and cons. We were interested to note a response to a tweet where someone had talked about his family—an uncle who survived polio and was now 70, another who caught scarlet fever, was blind at the age of 19 and dead at 36.

The tweet ended with the sombre message that everyone in his family got vaccinated. In response, one Twitter user pointed out that anyone who did genealogy could find plenty of deaths from diseases that are now vaccine preventable, and many others jumped in, agreeing with the statement and mentioning diphtheria.

Infectious diseases

When the UK’s National Health Service was set up 73 years ago, infectious diseases were far more prevalent (2020-21 being the obvious exception), but the tweet did make us nod in agreement. We spend a lot of time ploughing through census records and death certificates, and the further back in time we go, the more likely an infectious disease is to pop up.

So, what is the history of vaccinations? Edward Jenner is often credited with the discovery of the first vaccine – one that protected against smallpox. This virulent disease is known to have co-existed with humans for thousands of years sweeping through Europe in the 11 and 12th centuries.

While Edward Jenner created the break-through vaccination, in 10th century China and India, variolation was used – taking small amounts of pus from sufferers and inoculating healthy people with it. The method was not without considerable risk but far safer than developing natural smallpox.

Cowpox versus smallpox

Jenner carried out his famous experiment in 1796, when inserted pus extracted from a cowpox pustule on the hand of a milkmaid, into an incision on the arm of an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, his reasoning drawn from countryside folklore that milkmaids who contracted the milder disease of cowpox never got small pox.

Luckily for young James, Jenner’s reasoning worked, and his method became the main way to prevent outbreaks of smallpox around the world. In 1801, he wrote that annihilation of the disease might be possible though it was not until 1980 that the world was announced smallpox-free.

The scientific advances of the early 20th century led to the development of many more vaccines – ones for whooping cough (1914), diphtheria (1926) tetanus (1938), the flu (1945) and mumps (1948), with vaccines against polio coming in 1955, measles 1963 and rubella 1969.

Depending on how far back your family tree takes you, it is more than likely you will find one if not more of those diseases as the causes of death for relatives in the late 19th/early 20th century and sometimes even later than then.

In 1915, the average life expectancy at birth for a man was 48.4 years and 54 for women, whereas by 2015, it was 79.3 and 82.9 respectively, mainly thanks to people no longer dying in such large numbers from infections.

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