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Opinion: National Vaccination Day?

It hit Boston in the early 18th Century. However, it had devasted populations of human beings for about 10,000 years, mostly in China, the Asian subcontinent, and Africa. It traveled to Europe sometime between the fifth and seventh centuries and, during the Middle Ages, killed millions of people. In 1720, passengers on a boat from the West Indies brought it to Boston harbor, from which it spread through the city and to other parts of Massachusetts.

It was called small pox. Edward Jenner (1749-1823) is widely recognized for his innovative method of immunization to the deadly disease which, if it didn’t kill its victims, left one-third of its survivors blind. However, Jenner was not the first to protect the public from small pox with the subcutaneous insertion of a vaccine.

When minister Cotton Mather diagnosed the disease that arrived on that ship in 1720, he received information about the course of the disease from an African slave. That led him to seek information from the Royal Society and the College of Physicians in England. Based on that research, he wrote a letter of recommendations to the physicians of Boston. The only one to give a positive response was Dr. Zabdiel Boylston (1679-1766). Boylston has already begun the practice, then known as variolation with his son and some other members of his family. He was convinced that his method would be successful with the general population.

With Cotton Mather’s authority behind him, Boylston inoculated 248 residents of the English colony. He administered the first vaccination ever used in American on June 26, 1721. So, shouldn’t today be recognized as National Vaccination Day?

Of those who received the treatment, based on the injection of serum taken from people who had suffered small pox and survived, only two percent died. But, during the epidemic of 1721, half of Boston’s 12,000 people were struck with the disease, and the rate of fatality was 14 percent. Although Boylston’s method was not universally accepted, many people in the colonies and Europe sought the treatment. Other physicians, of course, condemned the practice, and ardent opponents threw a lighted bomb into Boylston’s living room where he sat with his wife and children. Fortunately, the fuse fell out, and the bomb did not explode.

Based on his success in Boston, Boylston was invited to England by the Royal Society. In Europe, the practice of variology was so popular that even Empress Marie-Therese of Austria, her children, and grandchildren were all inoculated. So were Frederick II of Prussia, Louis XVI of France, and Catherine II of Russia.

In 1757, an 8-year-old boy in Gloucester was inoculated. His name was Edward Jenner, and he went on to develop a method of deriving the serum from cow pox to fight the disease. Many years later, after revolutionary troops were decimated by the disease while fighting British troops who had been inoculated, George Washington had his fighters vaccinated. But, the story of vaccination doesn’t end there.

Walter Reed and Yellow Fever

In 1900, it was also on June 26 when Dr. Walter Reed officially began his research that led to the eradication of Yellow Fever. He may have been the inspiration for Doogie Howser, a TV series that aired from 1989 to 1993. While Doogie Howser was a ridiculously fictional teenaged medical doctor, Walter Reed was the real thing. He enrolled at the University of Virginia’s medical school at the age of 15, completed all of the required courses in two years, and was awarded his medical degree at the age of 17.

Reed served as an army surgeon for twenty years, during which he studied and conquered Yellow Fever. Although this disease is virtually unknown today, there were serious outbreaks during the 18th and 19th centuries. The disease spread rapidly and could kill twenty percent of a city’s population in just a couple of months. The deadliest occurrence in this country was in the summer and fall of 1878 when it infected 120,000 people in the lower Mississippi Valley, killing nearly one of every five victims.

While little was known about the origin of the disease, most physicians at the time believed that it was a bacterial infection. Reed, however, looked at a theory proposed by Cuban physician Carlos Finlay, who argued that Yellow Fever was spread by mosquitos.

On June 26, 1900, the U.S. Army, which had an occupying force in Cuba following the Spanish-American War, appointed the Yellow Fever Commission with Major Walter Reed heading the research group. Although his methods would not meet today’s rigid standards, Reed set up an experimental groups and control groups, which is now standard procedure.

Some volunteers, including some of the researchers themselves, were deliberately infected, some were vaccinated, some were simply exposed to a certain strain of mosquitos, and some were isolated so that they could not come in contact with the mosquitos. When it was proven that Yellow Fever was spread by the bite of the female anopheles mosquito, Major William Gorgas ordered a team to eradicate the species by fumigating every building in Havana. Then he identified sources of water where mosquitos breed and either had them drained or had oil spread across their surfaces.

Not only did the actions based on Reed’s findings curtail the spread of Yellow Fever in Cuba, but it was also extremely important in controlling both Yellow Fever and Malaria on the isthmus connecting North America and South America during the construction of the Panama Canal between 1904 and 1914.


Our most recent pandemic, COVID-19, has benefitted from hundreds of years of medical research. Scientists, using mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid), have developed a vaccine that protects with ninety-five-percent efficacy. If you haven’t received immunization yet, protect yourself now. We have the means to do it; but we need the resolve to end this life-threatening disease.

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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at


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