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Vaccination: a History of Scientific Breakthroughs

How vaccines have changed the world

by Claire Law

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider the history of vaccination and how safe, effective vaccines have been developed.

Preparation and materials


  1. Show Slide 1.

    Welcome the students to today’s assembly.

  2. Show Slide 2.

    Most of you are aware that the UK is now rolling out a major vaccination programme to help to provide immunity to the Covid-19 virus. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you may remember that, in December 2020, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan from Northern Ireland became the first person in the world to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. A month later, on 9 January 2021, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh received their first doses of Covid-19 vaccine at Windsor Castle.

  3. Since then, over two million people per week have been given the vaccine in the UK. Older people living in care homes, frontline health and social care workers and those who are over 80 years old have been offered the vaccine first. In time, it is hoped that all adults in the UK will be offered the vaccine.

  4. Show Slide 3.

    After having their first injection, people receive a record card that shows the date and the dose of the vaccine that they received. It also contains blank fields to be completed for the second dose, which helps the vaccine to offer increased immunity.

  5. In today’s assembly, we are going to look at the history of vaccinations and the ways in which safe, effective vaccines have been developed. We’ll gain a better sense of why they are important and how they work to protect public health.

  6. The idea behind vaccination is an old one. For hundreds of years, societies in India, China and the Middle East used scabs from smallpox sufferers to protect themselves from this often deadly disease. Taking a small number of scabs from a person who was infected with a mild case of smallpox, and then exposing a healthy person to them, offered some immunity from the illness.

    This technique is known as variolation. The oldest documented use of variolation dates back to China in the fifteenth century. In a somewhat gross method, scabs from an infected person were ground into powder and inserted into the nostrils of a healthy person. Although this method sounds disgusting, it did seem to offer some protection from deadly disease.

  7. Show Slide 4.

    Using inoculation to prevent disease became known within some communities in western countries in the eighteenth century. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (shown on the slide), a member of the aristocracy, was keen to see the technique of variolation used in England. She had suffered from smallpox herself in 1715, and it had left her face severely scarred. Her 20-year-old brother died of the illness 18 months later.

    Lady Montagu had learnt about the technique of variolation from her time living in Turkey. As a result, in 1718, she asked a surgeon to use the technique on her four-year-old son. A few years later, she arranged for her three-year-old daughter to receive the treatment too. Doctors who were part of the Royal Court watched the procedure and became familiar with the technique.

  8. Variolation was not risk-free, however. Essentially, it involved deliberately infecting someone with a mild case of smallpox to prevent a more serious, deadly case. Sometimes, though, people contracted a deadly form of smallpox after the technique, and could spread the infection to others. King George III lost a son to the procedure, as did many others.

  9. Show Slide 5.

    In time, scientists learnt that infecting someone with cowpox instead of smallpox was a safer way of preventing a bad case of smallpox. Edward Jenner was an important person in this discovery. He noticed that women who worked in dairies and milked cows often contracted the disease of cowpox, but they didn’t get smallpox. Cowpox is similar to - but much milder than - the highly contagious and sometimes deadly smallpox disease.

    By the end of the eighteenth century, Edward Jenner was investigating how a small dose of cowpox could prevent smallpox. A young boy named James Phipps received Jenner’s first cowpox injection. The technique was called ‘vaccination’, and comes from the Latin word vaccinus, meaning ‘derived from a cow’.

    As a public health measure, vaccination was more useful than variolation because there was less risk of cross-infection and it could confer immunity even during smallpox outbreaks. As science and medical understanding developed, so did the provision of different vaccines. Microscopes began to be more widely used and people began to understand more about how germs worked.

  10. Show Slide 6.

    It was French scientist, Louis Pasteur, who further developed vaccines during the late nineteenth century. He created vaccinations for cholera, anthrax and rabies by using a method that artificially weakened the disease. In honour of Edward Jenner, Pasteur used the term ‘vaccines’ to describe these treatments.

  11. During the twentieth century, many huge developments in medicine benefited people’s health. In the UK, the Ministry of Health began to offer a wide range of vaccinations to protect against deadly diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, polio and tuberculosis. Nowadays, all children in the UK are offered a range of scientifically developed vaccinations that provide immunity against certain diseases. This has been a real success story. Cases of polio in the UK fell dramatically when routine vaccination was introduced in 1955 and there hasn’t been a case of polio caught in the UK since the mid-1980s. Worldwide, smallpox has now been eradicated.

Time for reflection

The history of vaccinations is fascinating. It’s clear that we’ve come a long way in terms of treatments that help to prevent disease and infection. These developments draw on the hard work of many scientists who have given their time and skills to help others.

Christians regard our intelligence and our ability to study the world scientifically as a sign of our God-given gifts and talents. Of course, we could choose to use our intelligence to harm others and cause suffering. Alternatively - like Jennings, Pasteur and so many other scientists - we can choose to use our abilities to benefit others, and bring healing and hope to people in need.

Let’s pause to consider the abilities and talents that we each have. Perhaps we are natural scientists. If not, there will be other abilities and talents that we have.

Let’s take a moment to bow our heads and consider three things that we excel at, three gifts that make us the people we are.

Pause to allow time for thought.

Let’s also consider how we can choose to use these gifts to benefit others. How might we bring hope and healing to others today?

Perhaps we will take time to listen to a friend, or to help someone understand a tricky maths concept in class. Perhaps we can show kindness to our brother or sister, or other people at home.

Let’s take a moment to reflect upon the skills and gifts that we have and, importantly, how we can use them to help others today.

Dear God,
As humans, we face challenges and difficulties in life.
One of these challenges is illness.
As humans, we are also blessed with intelligence and the ability to study and learn about our world.
We thank you for the abilities that you give to each of us.
We thank you for the gifts that you gave to important scientists who have worked hard to produce safe and effective modern vaccines.
Please help us today to be more aware of the gifts and skills that we have.
Help us to see opportunities today when we can use our gifts to bring hope and healing to others.
Give us the courage to make use of our gifts and talents.

Publication date: February 2021   (Vol.23 No.2)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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