Thank you, Blossom

Did you know that a milkmaid, a cow, and an observant doctor are to thank for the eradication of smallpox from the developed world?

In 1796, English physician and scientist Edward Jenner developed our first modern-day vaccine after treating a milkmaid for blisters on her hands. The blisters were from a mild disease called cowpox, which was often transmitted from cows to milkmaids. During treatment, Jenner noticed that milkmaids who recovered from cowpox never contracted smallpox, the most virulent and deadly disease of the time, killing 400,000 people a year in Europe alone during the 1700s and an estimated 300–500 million people worldwide during the 20th century (smallpox was only declared eradicated in 1979).

From that astute observation, Jenner went on to develop the world’s first vaccine, and his discovery is said to have saved more lives than the work of any other person in history.


The milkmaid had contracted cowpox from a cow named Blossom, and Jenner used fluids from that cow’s blisters to develop his vaccine. Blossom’s hide now hangs in a place of honor at St George’s medical school library in Tooting, England.

Leave a comment 4 Comments

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    I never knew the story of the smallpox vaccine origins but this is very interesting. I also remember seeing on a documentary of John Adams, that his wife self vaccinated all of her children. An outbreak had occurred and there was this very advent guard theory that if you take some of the fluid from one blister and scratch it into the skin of a healthy person, they will get a minor case of smallpox but most likely survive. And so that is what she did and all of her children survived their relatively minor cases of smallpox. In fact that is what the early vaccine did. The big blister, low grade fever and malaise was a minor case of the smallpox that allowed the body to build immune without the disease overwhelming them. I remember getting my last smallpox vaccine when I was in high school. I think it is a worrisome thing now that people decline to vaccinate their children for reasons not well founded in science. As a result, we now have the largest outbreak of measles in California since 2001 and pockets of polio again in refugee camps and third world countries.

  2. Yes we were taught this story of his wondrous discovery in 2nd grade where I went to school. thank you Blossom and Dr. Jenner!

  3. Robert Tressler says:

    I have a old print of this picture in a very old frame ,It is about 2 feet x 2 feet. Looking for more info.

  4. Thiru Siva says:

    We were all very proud to have Blossom’s hide displayed in our library to remind us of the great scientific heritage of the institution where we were studying medicine.

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