The first proper vaccination is said to have taken place in 1796, when English physician Edward Jenner injected an eight-year-old boy to protect him from smallpox. But as is so often the case, the story goes back much further – and farther away from Europe – than that.
Evidence suggests that as far back as 1000 BC, Chinese medics practiced what is now called variolation – rubbing or inserting powdered smallpox scabs into small scratches on the skin in order to protect the recipient against smallpox. Variola – Latin for “pustule” – is the medical name for the smallpox virus.
As is usually the case with good ideas as well as bad diseases, this spread – through India and Turkey into Africa and the Middle East and, by the 18th century, to Europe and its new settlements in America.
One early example over the Atlantic came in 1706 when Puritan minister Cotton Mather learnt of the technique from his slave Onesimus, who had been variolated in West Africa.