Edward Jenner’s development of the smallpox vaccine in the 1790s was a crucial turning point for the eradication of smallpox. Variolation, the direct exposure of an individual to the smallpox virus to encourage immunity, was replaced by Jenner with vaccination, in which a scab from the infectious cow-pox virus was inserted into the skin. Inoculation was therefore now possible and proved to not only save many 19th century lives, but also contributed to the eradication of smallpox by 1980.
Yet as with all new medical advances, the early 19th century smallpox vaccine was met with opposition. Coloured etchings held at the Wellcome Library, London, suggest that one simple aspect of the vaccine made the public and anti-vaccinators uneasy – the cow.
The fear of the cow was depicted widely between the years 1800 and 1810, the first ten years of the smallpox vaccination. A coloured etching by J. Gillray, published in 1802, depicts Edward Jenner vaccinating patients at St Pancras’ Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital (see Figure 1.) The patients who have been vaccinated are shown to be developing pustules, boils and extra limbs, all in the shape of small cows. One lady has even developed the horns of a cow. Furthermore, a young boy is shown carrying a pot of ‘Vaccine Pox, Straight from the Cow’, whilst Edward Jenner administers the pox into his next patient. The general public were fearful of being vaccinated with a disease present in cows and believed that the vaccine came directly from a cow. Contrary to this opinion, the vaccine was in fact derived from the scabs and blisters of those infected with cow-pox, not the cows themselves. The irrational fear of developing cow-like features highlights the lack of public understanding of vaccination; in an attempt to understand the vaccination process, those unfamiliar with medicine took the cow-pox vaccine literally.
The humble cow was further villainised in 1802 with an etching by C. Williams (see Figure 2). In this case, the cow is shown to be the cause of all 19th century infection and disease, such as leprosy, pestilence, plague, and fetid ulcers. Men with cow horns atop their heads are shown to be feeding live babies to the cow, whilst a man at the rear end of the cow is shovelling dead babies into a cart. Interestingly, the diseases which the cow’s body is shown to incubate were at the time incurable, suggesting that the smallpox vaccination was seen as a farce by anti-vaccinators. How could a disease that originated in an animal that harbours such horrid diseases, be the cure for smallpox? The cow was therefore seen as the opposite of a medical cure and so was deemed unsafe to play any part in the vaccination process.
Accusations doubting the reliability of the smallpox vaccine were also made amongst ant-vaccinators and the general public. This can best be seen in M. Duborg’s coloured aquatint of 1810, a portrait of a young white cow (see Figure 3.) At first glance, this piece of art looks to be nothing more than a detailed portrait, yet the caption tells a different story. Entitled ‘Vaccination, a favourite young cow’, this portrait argues that the smallpox vaccine was not reliable, due to its recent discovery. Anti-vaccinators were consequently also troubled by the vaccination of individuals with a vaccine less than 15 years old.
From irre-moo-vable side effects to anxieties surrounding the reliability of Jenner’s discovery, it is clear from the above etchings that the smallpox vaccine was feared by anti-vaccinators and the general public during its infancy. The cow was seen as unclean, unreliable and harmful to the human body, despite it having no direct link to the vaccine. The fear of the cow ultimately came from a simple misunderstanding; the origin of the cowpox infection used in the smallpox vaccine.
*All images used under the Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0), taken from the Wellcome Collection’s free online image library.