The History of Vaccinations

Every time I hear that someone I know has had their Covid 19 vaccination, I feel a sense of relief, and I was delighted to have my own first dose the other day.  Though the situation continues to be challenging for us all, and has brought so much sad loss, the vaccine gives us hope.

The history of humanity has been the history of a struggle against infectious disease.  Just a generation or two ago, diseases we now know only from history books and period dramas ravaged the population of this country and our lives have been transformed by our access to vaccinations against them.  Many of our older books in the Biography Collection still have notices pasted inside about what to do if the books have been exposed to infectious diseases. (Pic 1) (Until last year, these labels seemed like quaint relics of a distant reality – none of us imagined having to put books in quarantine again – but they show the prevalence of many serious contagious diseases not very long ago.)  Talk to someone in their 70s or 80s, and the chances are they will recall the death of someone they knew from these once all too common infections. My mother recalls with horror the death of her three year old cousin from diptheria at a time when it killed an average of 3,500 children a year in England and Wales, and my mother-in-law lost her father far too young due to TB (tuberculosis); a generation earlier, two of my grandmother’s siblings died in young adulthood from the same disease.  No family was untouched by the tragedies wrought by these lethal infections.

In the Special Collection of Biographies, we can find the stories of many of the people who developed vaccines, thereby saving millions of lives.  It would take too long to look at the inventors of all the most important vaccines, but here is a whistle-stop tour of just a few of them:

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner was the father of vaccination; in the 1790s he investigated the fact that milkmaids had a far lower rate of smallpox infection than average, and worked out that the cow pox they were catching from cattle was making them immune to the much deadlier smallpox (killer of 10% of the population at the time).  He had the revolutionary idea of introducing just the right amount of disease to produce immunity in healthy people.  Amongst many books about him, we have the earliest biography, published by his friend John Baron in 1838 (Pics 2 and 3)

Louis Tompkins Wright

Over a century later, Louis Tompkins Wright revisited smallpox vaccination in a military setting and invented the procedure of interdermal vaccination.(Pic 4) He was inspired by his doctor father, Ceah Ketchan Wright, whose achievements would have been impressive in any context, but were particularly remarkable given that he was born into slavery in Georgia. Wright followed his father into the profession, graduating from Harvard in 1915.  Serving as an Army Medical Corps Lieutenant in France during the Great War, he perfected the method whereby vaccine is injected into the skin rather than more deeply, which enabled him to vaccinate soldiers quickly and with reduced risk of infection. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his war service, and was subject to poison gas attack which affected his health for the rest of his life, and caused his death aged 61. He became a civil rights activist and was president of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) from 1935 until his death in 1952.  As the first African American to serve both as surgeon on the staff of a desegregated hospital (Harlem Hospital, where he eventually became Chief Surgeon) and as a police surgeon, Wright fought racism throughout his career, and protested against segregated medical care.  As his father had inspired him, so he inspired his two daughters, who both went on to become ground-breaking doctors and cancer researchers.

Jonas Salk

Polio was a huge problem in the twentieth century; panic would erupt, and public swimming pools be closed, when the disease went through a community.  It could be fatal, and could lead to permanent paralysis, sometimes meaning that the only way the sufferer could survive would be to live inside an “iron lung”, which enabled them to breathe but made any kind of normal life impossible.  Jonas Salk, the son of uneducated Russian Jewish immigrants to the USA, developed the vaccination in 1955. (Pic 5) He had previously developed a vaccine for flu, which the pandemic of 1918 had shown was a viral infection rather than a bacterial one, as had been believed.  He struggled with the huge fame and adulation he experienced after making his life-saving discoveries.

Many of us will remember having the BCG vaccination against TB as school children – but may not know that the “BCG” stands for Bacillus Calmette Guerin, after Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin, the  French immunologists who created the vaccine in 1921 – of whom unfortunately only French language biographies have as yet been published. (Pic 6) Robert Koch had won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work identifying the TB bacillus, which made a vaccine possible – it is extraordinary to realise that at one time, 1 in 7 of all deaths throughout the whole of global humanity was caused by this disease. (Pic 7)

Grace Elderling

At the Michigan Department of Health, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Elderling (pic 8) developed the vaccination for whooping cough (pertussis). It caused violent paroxysms of coughing, with the characteristic sound that gave it its name, which could be fatal, especially in children who were 95% of its victims.  Both women had survived the disease as children and were keenly aware of how easily they might not have done. As the Great Depression had led to the department being starved of funds and staff, the women undertook their research unpaid and outside their normal working hours.

Maurice Hilleman grew up on a farm in Montana, and later said that the deaths of his mother and twin sister shortly after his birth made him want to save lives, and that working with the chickens as a boy had led to his interest in biology. (pic 9) He went on to develop an incredible 40 different vaccines, including those for measles, mumps, and hepatitis A and B.  It is estimated that his work saves 8 million lives worldwide every single year.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about these people whose discoveries have saved so many lives, and may be inspired to read their stories.  Check out our BioEpic podcast available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public for more stories of fascinating people.

Philosopher, philanthropists and philanderers: famous and infamous characters from the Regency Era

James Heywood, Founder of the First Free Library in Kensington
James Heywood, Founder of the First Free Library in Kensington

Kensington and Chelsea libraries holds a nationally renowned biography collection at Kensington Central Library (we’ve blogged about it before).   There are over 80,000 printed works with over 1000 new titles added each year.

As part of our celebration of the 200 year anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Two of our Triborough Stock Librarians (who are responsible for the maintenance of the collection), Sally Connew- Volpe and Andy Norton highlight a few of the most important and often notorious characters from the Regency Era who feature in our biography collection.

The collection features numerous biographies, memoirs, diaries and volumes of letters by and about the contemporaries of Jane Austen.

Charles Babbage by Anthony Hyman
Charles Babbage by Anthony Hyman

Charles Babbage: (26 December 1791 – 18 October 1871) was an English mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer who originated the concept of a programmable computer. Considered a “father of the computer”, Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer that eventually led to more complex designs

William Blake by Peter Ackroyd
William Blake by Peter Ackroyd

William Blake: (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of poetry and the visual arts.

George IV: A Life in Caricature by Kenneth Baker
George IV: A Life in Caricature by Kenneth Baker

The Prince of Pleasure by J.B. Priestley
The Prince of Pleasure by J.B. Priestley

George IV: (12 August 1762 – 26 June 1830) was king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and king of Hanover following the death of his father, George III, on 29 January 1820, until his own death ten years later. From 1811 until his accession, he served as Prince Regent during his father’s final mental illness.

Beau Brummel by Hubert Cole
Beau Brummel by Hubert Cole

Beau Brummell: (7 June 1778 – 30 March 1840) was an iconic figure in Regency England, the arbiter of men’s fashion, and a friend of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV. He established the mode of dress for men that rejected overly ornate fashions for one of understated, but perfectly fitted and tailored clothing. This look was based on dark coats, full-length trousers rather than knee breeches and stockings, and above all immaculate shirt linen and an elaborately knotted cravat.

Byron: The Flawed Angel by Phyllis Grosskurth and Byron by Benita Eisler
Byron: The Flawed Angel by Phyllis Grosskurth and Byron by Benita Eisler

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, FRS (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was an English poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement. Among Byron’s best-known works are the lengthy narrative poems Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the short lyric “She Walks in Beauty.” He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential.

Coleridge by Richard Holmes
Coleridge by Richard Holmes

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834) was an English poet, literary critic and philosopher who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets.

Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency England by J.C. Reid
Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency England by J.C. Reid

Pierce Egan : (1772–1849) was an early British journalist, sportswriter, and writer on popular culture. He born in the London suburbs, where he spent his life. By 1812 he had established himself as the country’s leading ‘reporter of sporting events’, which at the time meant mainly prize-fights and horse-races. The result of these reports, which won him a countrywide reputation for wit and sporting knowledge, appeared in the four volumes of Boxiana, or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism, which appeared, lavishly illustrated, between 1818-24.

Elizabeth Fry by Catherine Swift
Elizabeth Fry by Catherine Swift

Elizabeth Fry: (21 May 1780 – 12 October 1845) Fry was an English prison reformer, social reformer and, as a Quaker, a Christian philanthropist. She has sometimes been referred to as the “angel of prisons”. Fry was a major driving force behind new legislation to make the treatment of prisoners more humane, and she was supported in her efforts by George IV.

England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton by Kate Williams
England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton by Kate Williams

Lady Hamilton: Emma, Lady Hamilton (26 April 1765 – 15 January 1815) is best remembered as the mistress of Lord Nelson.

Edward Jenner by I.E. Levine
Edward Jenner by I.E. Levine

Edward Jenner: (17 May 1749 – 26 January 1823) was an English physician and scientist from Berkeley, Gloucestershire, who was the pioneer of smallpox vaccine. He is often called “the father of immunology”, and his work is said to have “saved more lives than the work of any other man”.

A selection of Nelson biographies
A selection of Nelson biographies

Nelson: a Dream of Glory by John Sugden
Nelson: a Dream of Glory by John Sugden

Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, KB (29 September 1758 – 21 October 1805) was a flag officer famous for his service in the Royal Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. He was noted for his inspirational leadership and superb grasp of strategy and unconventional tactics, which resulted in a number of decisive naval victories. He was wounded several times in combat, losing one arm and the sight in one eye. Of his several victories, the best known and most notable was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, during which he was shot and killed.

John Soane by Gillian Darley
John Soane by Gillian Darley

Sir John Soane, RA : (10 September 1753 – 20 January 1837) was an English architect who specialised in the Neo-Classical style. The son of a bricklayer, he rose to the top of his profession, becoming professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and an official architect to the Office of Works. He received a knighthood in 1831.

A Queen on Trial: The Affair of Queen Caroline by E.A. Smith
A Queen on Trial: The Affair of Queen Caroline by E.A. Smith

Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (Caroline Amelia Elizabeth; later Queen Caroline; 17 May 1768 – 7 August 1821) was the Queen consort of King George IV of the United Kingdom from 29 January 1820 until her death. Between 1795 and 1820, she was Princess of Wales.

A Flame in the Sunlight:The Life & Work of Thomas De Quincey by Edward Sackville West
A Flame in the Sunlight:The Life & Work of Thomas De Quincey by Edward Sackville West

Thomas De Quincey (15 August 1785 – 8 December 1859) was an English essayist, best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).

The Life of Walter Scott by John Sutherland
The Life of Walter Scott by John Sutherland

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) was a Scottish historical novelist, playwright, and poet, popular throughout much of the world during his time. Scott was the first English-language author to have a truly international career in his lifetime. Famous titles include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor.

Life of Wellington - in two volumes
Life of Wellington – in two volumes

Duke of Wellington (1 May 1769 – 14 September 1852), was a British soldier and statesman, a native of Ireland from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy,and one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century.

The Man Who Freed Slaves: The Story of William Wilberforce by A. & H. Lawson
The Man Who Freed Slaves: The Story of William Wilberforce by A. & H. Lawson

William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) was an English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty-six years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Mary Shelley by Muriel Spark
Mary Shelley by Muriel Spark

Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; 30 August 1797 – 1 February 1851) was an English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein.  She also edited and promoted the works of her husband, the Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her father was the political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother was the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

All of the titles featured above and many more are available for loan from Kensington Central Library.

You can also find more information about these Regency Era characters  online by visiting the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (you’ll need a library membership to access this database outside of the library.

Andy Norton and Sally Connew-Volpe
Andy Norton and Sally Connew-Volpe

Andrew Norton and Sally Connew-Volpe

Tribrorough Stock Librarians