For the past two hundred years, researchers in the UK have taken a leading role in developing new vaccines to tackle an ever-growing number of infectious diseases. It’s a legacy that started with the first smallpox vaccine in 1796 and continues to the present day.
1800-1890: Widespread infection and vaccine research begins
A succession of deadly cholera pandemics began in India in 1817, quickly spreading around the world. In 1854, English doctor John Snow traced a cholera outbreak to a London water pump, confirming that the disease was spread through contaminated drinking water. By 1879, French scientist Louis Pasteur was using attenuated whole cholera bacteria as a vaccine against the disease. The decades that followed saw an intense period of research into the causes of infectious diseases and ways to counter them, with scientists in the UK, USA, France, and Germany all working to create vaccines against diseases like typhoid, plague, tuberculosis, and rabies.
1890–1930: Deactivated toxins used for vaccination
Tetanus and diphtheria are both caused by bacteria that produce toxins. In the early 1900s, Alexander Glenny and Barbara Hopkins at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in London and others began experimenting with vaccines created from deactivated toxins (toxoids), rather than whole bacteria. They developed a toxoid diphtheria vaccine in 1923 followed by a tetanus vaccine in 1926.
1930–1960: The first flu vaccines and the start of global surveillance
Influenza has been responsible for several lethal global pandemics, including the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918–20 which caused 21 million deaths worldwide, and it still kills more than half a million people around the world every year. In 1933, English scientists from the Medical Research Council isolated the influenza virus for the first time, eventually producing vaccines that were first trialled with British army troops fighting in World War II.
There are many different subtypes of influenza virus, all of which are continually mutating and evolving. Although modern flu vaccines contain multiple viral subtypes, providing better protection, they may still be ineffective against the next season’s disease. A global influenza surveillance program was established by scientists from the Medical Research Council in 1947 to monitor the changing viruses and develop more effective seasonal flu vaccines.
1950–2000: Cell techniques spark a new era of vaccine research
In the 1950s, American scientist Jonas Salk developed new techniques to grow polio viruses in cells in the laboratory without the need for animal hosts. He used this method to produce a polio vaccine made from deactivated viruses, halting the polio epidemic in the USA and saving thousands of lives. Following the success of Salk’s polio vaccine, many researchers in the UK and around the world also adopted cell culture techniques. As a result, this era saw new vaccines for a range of viral diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, and Japanese encephalitis.
1970–2020: Genetically engineered proteins bring further advances
Glenny and Hopkins’ work on toxoid vaccines in the 1920s showed that whole bacteria weren’t necessary for creating immunity. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers worked out how to turn specific molecules from the outer coats of bacteria and viruses into vaccines. By the 1980s, researchers began using genetic engineering to produce precisely tailored molecules as vaccine components, known as conjugate vaccines. The first of these vaccines, designed against hepatitis B, was approved in 1986. A more recent success came in 2019 with the roll-out of the first typhoid vaccine suitable for infants.
Thanks to the dedicated work of researchers all over the world, vaccines now prevent 2–3 million premature deaths every year.
From vaccination to eradication: the story of smallpox
Nobody under the age of 40 has ever seen a case of smallpox, and the first steps towards that victory happened right here in the UK.
In 1774, a village in Dorset called Yetminster was struck by a smallpox epidemic. It was known that farm workers who had experienced less serious cowpox were immune to smallpox, so an enterprising farmer, Benjamin Jesty, scratched his wife and children’s skin with pus from his cow’s cowpox blister in the hope of protecting them. While his family stayed safe, Jesty didn’t verify or publish his results.
Twenty years on, Gloucestershire doctor Edward Jenner inoculated eight-year-old James Phipps with material from a cowpox sore on a milkmaid’s hand. Two months later, Jenner treated Phipps with pus from a smallpox blister. Reassuringly, the boy remained unaffected by smallpox, proving the protective effects of cowpox against the disease.
Jenner tested more children, including his own infant son, and published his findings in 1798. His new ‘vaccination’ – named after vacca, the Latin word for cow – was widely adopted and refined over the following years. Jesty and Jenner’s work paved the way for the global smallpox vaccination program. After causing countless millions of deaths over thousands of years, the disease was finally declared eradicated in 1980.