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The history of vaccines

By Mehzebin Adam, curator, British Red Cross museum and archives


Last updated 18 June 2021

Just as the British Red Cross is supporting the NHS with the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out today, we have played an essential role in past vaccination campaigns to prevent diseases and improve public health.


Vaccine discovery

Smallpox was a highly infectious and deadly disease that was endemic around the world. During the 20th century alone, around 300 million people died from smallpox worldwide.  

Before vaccination was discovered, a procedure called variolation was used for protection against smallpox.

This method involved giving people a mild dose of the disease to make them immune. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced variolation in England, having seen it used first-hand while living in Turkey.

When she returned to London in 1718, she used her position and connections to campaign for variolation to be used. However, the procedure involved risks, and sadly some people died from this mild dose of smallpox.  




An important development came when Edward Jenner, an English physician and scientist, discovered that contracting cowpox provided immunity against smallpox. He published his findings in 1796 and called the procedure ‘vaccination’ after the Latin word for cow ‘vacca’.

Vaccination soon became standard practice for preventing smallpox, and thanks to a global mass vaccination programme, the World Health Organisation officially declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.  

The smallpox vaccine led to the development of many more life-saving vaccines.

Diphtheria is now rare in the UK because of vaccination programmes that began in 1940 when the death rate from diphtheria was high. Cases fell from 46,281 (2,480 deaths) in 1940, to 37 cases (6 deaths) in 1957.


Poliomyelitis (polio) became a huge public health issue in the late 19th century, with major epidemics in Europe and the United States.

Most cases of polio show no or mild symptoms, but for people who develop muscle weakness and paralysis, the effects can be devastating - or even fatal.

A breakthrough came in 1952 when Dr Jonas Salk started working on the first effective vaccine against polio.

In 1961, Albert Sabin pioneered the more easily administered oral polio vaccine. Mass vaccination programmes followed, and cases of polio have become rare over time. Today, polio cases remain only in Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Vaccine opposition

Resistance to and misinformation about vaccines have been around for as long as vaccinations have existed.

During the 1850s, the government passed a series of laws that made vaccination against smallpox compulsory for children.

While some people supported vaccination, others thought it was unsafe or unnecessary and saw it as government interference.

Some were suspicious of using material from cows to cure human disease, and some objected to this for religious reasons.  

Although the smallpox vaccine continued to work, the government made it possible for parents to get a certificate of exemption in 1898. Compulsory vaccination for smallpox in the UK ended in 1948.  

Vaccination has come a long way since its discovery. It is much safer than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the approved Covid-19 vaccines do not contain animal products.

Today, we also have a lot more access to information about vaccines, allowing us to separate myths from facts.

In 1998, a research paper was published in a medical journal, which suggested a connection between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism. The paper was later withdrawn by the journal and is now discredited as fraudulent.

Although research to date shows no link between autism and MMR, the false claims created confusion and impacted public confidence in vaccination. This led to a drop in people wanting the vaccine, resulting in several outbreaks of measles.  



In 1919, the British Red Cross began its peacetime role and added the improvement of health and the prevention of disease to its objectives. During the Second World War, British Red Cross volunteers helped give diphtheria vaccines to families evacuated from their homes due to bombing. 

The organisation has a long history of supporting the NHS with various health and social care services, including vaccination programmes. Following smallpox outbreaks in 1950 in Glasgow and Sussex, British Red Cross volunteers helped in clinics and mass vaccination centres.  

Stopping the spread of Covid-19

Just as vaccines have helped save lives in the past, they are vital in the fight against Covid-19 today.  
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the British Red Cross has been helping people across the UK, reaching communities with food, medicine, cash, and emotional support.

Our work today includes supporting the NHS vaccinate millions of people. As the vaccine roll-out continues across the country, there is hope on the horizon.

To learn more about our history of vaccinations, take a look at our new online exhibition

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