Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Izrael . Izrael Wonders, “What is smallpox?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Izrael !

Have you ever taken care of an animal? Anyone who works on a farm will tell you that working with animals is rewarding. Take cows for example. Caring for a cow is hard work, but they give a lot in return. Milking a cow can help provide dairy for an entire family. There was even a time when milking a cow could save your life!

In 1796, an English doctor named Edward Jenner saw that people who milked cows often became infected with cowpox. Similar to chickenpox, cowpox caused small sores all over the body. However, Jenner found that cowpox also had another effect. It stopped people from getting a disease called smallpox.

Have you ever heard of smallpox? It was a very scary illness for many people. Caused by the variola virus, smallpox was highly contagious. It could spread through entire towns in a matter of weeks. The virus caused fever and a bad skin rash.

Even worse, smallpox was deadly. Doctors estimate that about three of every ten patients did not survive smallpox. Those who lived carried scars from the rash for the rest of their lives. Some smallpox victims also became blind.

Smallpox terrorized mankind for centuries. Texts as far back as the 10th Century BCE describe a disease that may have been smallpox. It also shows up in texts from 7th Century BCE India and 4th Century BCE China. Experts also saw the rash on three Egyptian mummies from the 3rd Century BCE.

Luckily for us, smallpox is no longer a threat today. This is thanks to Edward Jenner’s work with the English milkmaids. When he saw that most of the milkmaids did not contract smallpox after being exposed to the virus, Jenner sought to learn why. Knowing they had all previously had cowpox, he knew there must be a connection.

Jenner got to the bottom of things by working with one of the milkmaids and her son, nine-year-old James Phipps. First, he infected Phipps with cowpox. Months later, Jenner exposed Phipps to the smallpox virus. The child did not get sick. Jenner repeated this several times, but the boy never caught smallpox.

Jenner had made the first vaccine. As news of his findings grew, doctors everywhere gave the vaccine to their patients. Slowly, the spread of smallpox declined.

In 1959, the World Health Organization set out to end smallpox. It raised donations and brought vaccines to parts of the world that couldn’t buy them. Two decades later, experts declared smallpox eradicated on May 8, 1980. No person has had smallpox since then.

Today, scientists continue studying smallpox. Why? They fear that the virus could one day be used as a weapon. If that’s the case, they’ll have vaccines ready to save lives.

Milking cows may sound like an odd way to stop illness, but it certainly saved lives! Without Jenner’s work with the milkmaids, we might still be fighting smallpox today. What other diseases might have unexpected cures? Will we one day find a similar solution to stop HIV or Ebola? It could happen sooner than we think!

Standards: NGSS.ETS1.A, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.3, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.W.1, CCRA.W.7, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2

Wonder What's Next?

We're cooking up tomorrow's Wonder of the Day just for you!