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The 18th century was a time of great change and innovation, both in the American colonies and across the world. Advancements in medicine, transportation, and communication made life easier and safer overall. One of the most significant breakthroughs of the time was the discovery of vaccines.

Today, vaccines are unfortunately controversial among certain groups of people, known as anti-vaxxers, but they have saved countless lives since the 1700s. To date, vaccinations are the most effective method to fully prevent the spread of disease.


Controversy is nothing new in the realm of vaccines, however; many European countries avoided the practice until around 1774. That year, the French king Louis XV succumbed to smallpox following a painful two weeks of suffering.


Louis XV had ruled France for nearly 60 years and was beloved throughout the country. The monarch's death effectively served as a wake-up call to the importance of vaccinations. His successor and grandson Louis XVI was determined to avoid a similar fate, and submitted to vaccination on June 18, 1774. The public vaccination of Louis XVI helped usher in an era of improved health on a global scale.

Combatting Europe's Smallpox Epidemic

Despite this, France was actually one of the last European countries to embrace the smallpox vaccine. Inoculations were already widespread throughout Asia and the Middle East in the first half of the 18th century. An English ambassador to Turkey was one of the earliest champions of vaccinations in Europe, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a smallpox survivor herself and widely advocated for vaccines upon her return to England in 1718.


At the time, the vaccination process was quite different from modern methods. A small amount of pus from the lesions of an infected person was rubbed into superficial scratches made on a healthy individual's skin in a process known as variolation. As the century came to a close, however, English physician Edward Jenner made history with his invention of the modern smallpox vaccine.


But despite the efforts of Jenner and Wortley Montagu, smallpox was not eradicated in the 18th century. Indeed, smallpox caused more than 300 million deaths in the 20th century before the World Health Organization (WHO) stepped in, according to Regis College. The WHO's aggressive global vaccination campaign led to the eradication of smallpox by 1979.

Saving Lives via Vaccines

Smallpox was spread by exposure to the Variola virus, and the disease claimed about 400,000 lives annually during the 17th century in Europe alone. Among children who contracted smallpox, the survival rate was a negligible 20%. The last known smallpox case occurred in Somalia in 1977.


The worldwide eradication of smallpox thanks to vaccines is a prime example of the effectiveness of inoculation. In recent years, other diseases besides smallpox have been eradicated or reduced in frequency. For example, chickenpox (also known as varicella), a major public health concern in the 1980s, is no longer a serious threat.


Prior to the widespread use of the chickenpox vaccine, researchers estimate that 3.7 million cases occurred annually. Chickenpox, which is related to the herpes virus group, causes fever and an itchy rash. The condition is rarely fatal but was linked to between 100 and 150 deaths per year in its heyday. Beginning in 2006, the CDC implemented a two-dose vaccine policy in an effort to further combat the disease.

Anti-vaxxers Across History

Despite the successful eradication of smallpox and other deadly diseases, vaccination still has its share of challenges. Most notably, there are many people who believe that vaccines do more harm than good. Anti-vaxxers attest that vaccinations can cause autism and other health problems, even though scientific research has proven otherwise.


In fact, the anti-vaxxer movement has caused more deaths than it has prevented. "More than 3 million people die from vaccine-preventable diseases each year," reports the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. About half of those deaths occur among children under the age of 5. As vaccination has a history that spans more than 300 years, that number is both alarming and unfortunate, and anti-vaxxers may be the largest culprit.


The Measles and Rubella Initiative claims that the anti-vaxxer movement is rooted in France circa 1763. While the philosopher Voltaire strongly advocated for vaccines, the French parliament banned the practice of inoculation until the death of Louis XV. Unlike French citizens in the 18th century, however, modern people have a plethora of information on the safety and vital importance of vaccinations. It almost seems counterintuitive that so many individuals today still die from preventable diseases.


In 18th century France, it took the death of a beloved monarch to help remove the stigma of inoculation. Today, many take the marvels of vaccination for granted. However, that's not the end of the story. Although we have a clear understanding of how vaccines work and their positive effects, they remain controversial.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.