His first subject was his son, Daniel, 5, whom he infected with a sample of cowpox sent by Dr. John Haygarth, England’s leading expert on contagious diseases.
After vaccinating several other family members and servants, Waterhouse tested it on a 12-year-old servant boy he had vaccinated to Dr. William Aspinwall’s Smallpox Hospital in Brookline, where he would be exposed to smallpox. The boy came home after 12 days having experienced little more than a sore arm, according to Waterhouse’s own account of the procedure.
For millennia, smallpox was one of the scourges of humankind, killing 25 to 30 of every hundred it struck. The survivors were often left blind or disfigured with its characteristic circular scars.
Despite the fact that a cure was now available, there was dramatic opposition to the vaccine. Thomas Jefferson stepped in to assist, and in a letter written in 1800 to the doctor, Jefferson said: “Every friend of humanity must look with pleasure on this discovery, by which one more evil is withdrawn from the condition of man; and must contemplate the possibility that future improvements and discoveries may still more and more lessen the catalogue of evils.”
Finally, in 1809, the first state to impose compulsory vaccination was Massachusetts.
The vaccine was originally developed in England by physician Edward Jenner (pictured right), who noticed that cowpox, a disease that struck cattle, provided immunity against smallpox for the milkmaids who contracted cowpox while milking infected cows.
Words of Wisdom for July 8, 2016
“On perusing this work, I was struck with the unspeakable advantages that might accrue to this country, and indeed to the human race at large, from the discovery of a mild distemper that would ever after secure the constitution from that terrible scourge, the smallpox.”
— Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, in his essay "A Prospect of Exterminating the Smallpox, Part 1"