What Is the History of Immunology?

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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2019
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The history of immunology can be traced in written records to as far back as the 5th century BC in Greece, where evidence was gathered about individuals who recovered from the plague and were otherwise immune to it afterward. The Greek historian Thucydides, who lived from 460 to 400 BC, is credited with first documenting this discovery. Several experimental methods of immunizing people were carried out in the history of immunology from this point onward by cultures in such far-flung places as China and the Ottoman Empire on up to the end of the 18th century. The modern history of immunology starts from this point in 1796, when an English doctor named Edward Jenner developed the first reliable method of vaccination for smallpox.


The uses of immunology are focused on inoculating individuals by implanting a weakened form of a disease in the body to stimulate long-term resistance and natural immune response to it. In this respect, one of the most widespread and systematic incidences in the history of immunology can be found in 10th century China. Smallpox was a widespread disease in China at the time, and a process of variolation was used to treat it. Variolation refers specifically to the scars that smallpox creates on the skin surface, and the Chinese practice involved taking material from smallpox lesions and having healthy people inhale it, or implanting it under their skin to stimulate immune response. The same practice was adopted in 1670 by the Ottoman Empire, but, due to its lack of standardization variolation, occasionally failed to protect the healthy individual or ended up giving him or her the smallpox disease itself.

From the Ottoman Empire, immunology training was adopted by England through the wife of the English ambassador to the Ottomans, Lady Mary Wortley Montague. She herself was infected with smallpox, but survived the disease, and became a proponent of variolation. In 1718, she instructed doctors to use it to protect her son and later her daughter in the King of England's presence.

The English Crown later experimented on prisoners with the process and they survived, so the practice spread throughout the British isles in the early 1700s, and, by 1740, it had crossed the Atlantic and was being used in America. Both Benjamin Jesty, an English farmer, and Edward Jenner, an English scientist, refined the process in 1774 and 1796 by using a cowpox virus which was not harmful to humans. This related virus served to inoculate individuals against smallpox, taking the history of immunology to a stage where treating people was safe and widely effective.

Types of immunology developed from this point on for other diseases. The history of immunology includes work in 1875 by Robert Koch, a rural German doctor searching for a treatment for tuberculosis. A watershed moment in the history of immunology is considered to be the year 1878, when Louis Pasteur, a French chemist, confirmed theories about the existence of germs and their causation in human diseases. Pasteur is credited with developing vaccines for both rabies and anthrax, as well as perfecting the heating and rapid cooling process to sterilize milk and wine that came to be known as pasteurization.

Immunology training and dissemination of knowledge is considered to be a key element to the development of civilization, particularly in the case of smallpox. Smallpox is known to have ravaged human populations as far back as 10,000 BC in northeastern Africa, spreading from there to Egypt and China around 1,000 BC and to Japan as of 500 AD. The history of immunology follows the spread of smallpox as it reached the European mainland between 400 and 600 AD, engulfing the entire continent by 1500 AD. During the 1700s, smallpox is believed to have killed at least 400,000 people worldwide.

The history of immunology developments followed directly on the heels of western civilization suffering enormous losses from widespread diseases like smallpox and the Black Plague. These infectious diseases are believed to have held back advances in society overall. As of 2010, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2,500,000 lives are saved annually through immunizations. This includes protection from diseases such as diptheria, whooping cough, and tetanus.


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Post 2

@Laotionne- You say that you believe parents should have the right to choose whether their children are immunized. This idea of personal freedom sounds good until you begin to look at it more closely. For better or worse, when you are part of a society you give up certain freedoms for the betterment of the larger group.

Immunization is a great example of why we do have to give up some of our individuals freedoms when we live in civilized society. Children who are not immunized are not only more likely to get ill from a disease, but they are also more likely to spread infections to other children and people in general.

We all know how quickly

a virus can spread in a school or daycare facility. Unless you are going to raise your children inside a bubble, they are going to come in contact with other people and if your children are not vaccinated then they are a risk to everyone they come in contact with.
Post 1

How do you come up the idea to protect people from a disease by infecting them with the disease? I imagine the person who first came up with that notion got a lot of criticism, and I bet there was not a long line of people volunteering to help him test his theory by being test subjects.

I was immunized as a child and I firmly belief in the benefits of the process, but there are still many people who are not on board with immunology. I believe people who do not wish to have their children vaccinated should have that option without interference from government, and without fear of legal actions being brought against them.

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