The 10 Most Successful Vaccines in all History

Norman Rockwell's famous painting of childhood vaccination
Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of childhood vaccination

We used to take vaccines for granted.  After all, they’ve been around for decades, some given to our grandparents and even great-grandparents.  So much so, we were shocked by a modern pandemic in 2020, due in part to the lack of a ready COVID vaccine.  How could that be?

Anti-vaxxers likewise have been with us since the beginning of vaccinations, all the way back to Smallpox.  They often questioned their safety or efficacy, or not trusting “big pharma” or “big government.”  But more often, they are objecting to the infringement on their Rights when it becomes mandated, even if for the overall public good, they don’t like being told what to do.  So how did we get here?

Here’s a quick history of the top 10 vaccines and immunization campaigns over the last 225 years.

That’s right, we have have vaccines since the 18th century.

1) SMALLPOX 1796 – It all started here.  British doctor Edward Jenner speculated that protection from the dreaded Pox could be obtained through inoculation with a related cowpox virus. He boldly tested his theory by inoculating the arm of 8 year-old James Phipps with cowpox pustule liquid, taken from the arm of a milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes.  And it worked!  Today smallpox has been all but eradicated globally.

2) RABIES 1885 – The first attenuated (weakened) live viral vaccine was developed by none other than Louis Pasteur, using desiccated rabbit brain tissue, inactivated with formaldehyde. Crude yes, but effective.  A 9 year old boy in France, mauled by a rabid dog, was the first to receive the injections from Pasteur himself.

3) PERTUSSIS (Whooping Cough) 1914 – The vaccine, a suspension of whole cell, inactive Bordetella pertussis bacteria was first developed by American pediatrician Leila Denmark. Inactivated vaccines were prepared with a virus that had been killed, again usually with a strong chemical like formaldehyde.

The “Spanish Flu” Pandemic of 1918 – killed over 50 million people worldwide. This particular influenza virus was unusual since it spread so quickly around the globe after World War I AND was so deadly among the young and healthy adults. About 1/3 of the world (over 500 million people) were infected over its 2 year scourge.

4) DIPTHERIA (AKA the Strangler) 1924 – Diphtheria toxoid was prepared from inactivated bacterial toxin, that lost its toxicity when heated, but kept its antitoxin and immunogenic properties. French doctor Gaston Ramon discovered the diphtheria toxoid at none other than the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

5) TUBERCULOSIS (AKA Consumption) 1927 – the Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine (live but attenuated Mycobacterium bovis bacteria) became the most widely administered of all vaccines in the WHO’s arsenal. Tested in cattle, it was first given to a French newborn baby in Paris, whose mother had Tuberculosis.

6) YELLOW FEVER 1935 – Epidemics spread by mosquitos in swamps attacked the men building the Panama Canal in 1912. A live vaccine was developed by Max Theiler, who famously used chicken eggs for culturing the vaccine on a large scale.  It was used widely on troops in World War II in the Pacific theater against the Japanese Empire.

7) INFUENZA 1942 – The first flu vaccine was introduced to the Armed Forces first during World War II, also mass produced in chicken eggs. The vaccine was licensed for public use in 1945 and, following the war, was used on civilians.  Today’s annual flu vaccines offer immunization against multiple flu strains at once, though never with 100% effectiveness.

Discovery of Penicillin in 1943 – not a vaccine, but just as important for diseases caused by bacterial infections. This medical miracle was first discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, then mass produced for the war. It played a vital role in treating the infected wounds of soldiers during World War II.

8) DPT 1948 – The first ever combination child vaccine was licensed for Diphtheria, Pertussis and also Tetanus in a single shot to the buttocks. It was revolutionary and praised by pediatricians and parents alike. No more coaxing frightened young children into 3 needle injections.  Booster shots are typically given 10 years later.

9) POLIO 1955 – People sent dimes to the White House to help find a vaccine for the dreaded Infantile Paralysis, which famously attacked President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The inactivated polio vaccine was licensed in 1955 and its inventor, American Dr. Jonas Salk, became an overnight global hero. In 1961, an oral polio vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin, grown in monkey kidney cells and licensed for use in the US.

10) MMR 1971 – The second famous combination childhood vaccine was for Measles, Mumps, and Rubella.  The first live measles vaccine was licensed in 1963.  A live Mumps vaccine was developed in 1967 by Maurice Hilleman, who isolated the virus from his daughter Jeryl, as she was recovering from mumps. A Rubella (German Measles) vaccine was licensed in 1969, grown in dog, duck or rabbit kidney cell cultures.

Americans lined up to receive the new polio vaccine in 1957
Americans lined up to receive the new polio vaccine in 1957.

By the 1980s, 7 vaccines were available for children: Because 6 were combined into two shots (DTP and MMR), and one, the oral polio vaccine, was given by mouth, kids received only five shots from their pediatricians, (including boosters) by the time they were 2, and never more than one shot per visit.

Since then, more modern vaccines have been developed in recent times for other aggressive diseases:
  • Hepatitis B, 1981 – First a blood plasma-based vaccine, and later in 1986, the first ever recombinant DNA vaccine, produced in yeast cells. Hep B has been virtually eliminated in children under 18 in the US.
  • HIB (Haemophilus influenzae type b) pneumonia, 1985 – The bacterial polysaccharide vaccine is routinely recommended for children at age 2.  More effective vaccines were developed for pneumonia in the 1990s
  • Varicella (Chickenpox), 1996 – made from live but attenuated virus.  A vaccine for its infamous cousin Shingles was licensed for adults in 2006.  Varicella was added to the childhood MMR Vaccine in 2005.
  • Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), genital warts & cervical cancer – 2006 in girls first and later for boys in 2009.  Perhaps you’ve seen the vaccine commercials on television, or heard of the controversy regarding STDs.

So, are we giving our children too many shots with too many vaccines?  Are they SAFE (from serious side effects), both immediately and in the long run?  Are they EFFECTIVE (do they confer lasting immunity) immediately and in the long run?  Do parents have a right to Refuse inoculating their children for whatever personal or religious reasons?  Do governments have a right to Mandate vaccinations in the interest of public safety?

All Excellent Questions.  History, and the overwhelming evidence generated since, has shown us that all the above vaccines are both safe and effective over time. Our great-grandparent received the smallpox vaccine, our grandparents the tuberculosis vaccine, and our parents the polio vaccine.  We have all likely received the ‘triples’ DPT and MMR shots as kids, as well as annual flu shots as adults, often free from our employers.  And we’re all still here

So with the COVID-19 vaccines available to you now, let history be your judge when deciding: Do I or don’t I?
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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

4 thoughts on “The 10 Most Successful Vaccines in all History

  1. “So with the COVID-19 vaccines available to you now, let history be your judge when deciding: Do I or don’t I?”

    This would be correct if the mRNA treatment was in fact a vaccine which we have learned is not simply because governments mandating it say it is. Huge numbers of people taking the polio vax never got a little bit of polio. Same with measles, smallpox and the rest. You falsely conclude that since these treatments are just like all the others on your list (plainly not the case) we should feel fine buying into the plan. Not me!

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