225 years ago today. The first ever vaccination – against smallpox, the great killer of the time

Economic growth


The pandemic has reminded us of the critical role played by vaccination in our lives. Its impact began 225 years ago today with Dr Edward Jenner’s discovery of smallpox vaccination. It literally changed the world.  And today, we have a new opportunity to reshape our world.  Please click here to download a more detailed PDF analysis (no registration needed).

Life has completely changed, and for the better, over the past 225 years.

Life then for ordinary people was mostly still “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”, with just three stages:

  • A child would be born, often killing its mother in the process
  • If it survived early childhood, the child would then work until it died
  • Average life expectancy was just 36 years in the West and only 24 years everywhere else

Even the rich had no defence against the pandemics of the time. As Voltaire highlighted in his 1733 “Letters concerning the English nation”:

“Out of a hundred people in the world at least sixty have smallpox, and of these sixty, twenty die of it in the flower of their youth and twenty keep the unpleasant marks for ever.”

The low level of life expectancy also meant education was largely unknown.

Most parents struggled just to pass on what little they had learnt to their children. Grinding poverty meant only the rich had access to any kind of schooling.


Edward Jenner took up his practice in 1773, just before James Watt’s 1776 invention of the steam engine. A keen observer of the world around him, Jenner realised that milkmaids rarely got smallpox.  And he wondered if they were being immunised by contracting cowpox, a bovine form of smallpox.

He famously proved his theory 225 years ago today in 1796, using his gardener’s son for the experiment. He named the discovery vaccination.  And even though the Royal Society rejected his first paper in 1797, events soon moved very quickly.

A Royal Jennerian Society was established in 1803 under the patronage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the UK quickly became the global centre of smallpox vaccination. (And smallpox was the first infectious disease to be eradicated, in 1980, due entirely to vaccination).

Smallpox vaccination meant that life expectancy began to increase rapidly. It averages 73 years today in the world – double that of the wealthiest countries 225 years ago.

The increase in life expectancy had three major impacts:

  • Victorian reformers began to push for the introduction of universal primary education.  So knowledge began to be shared via teachers and universities
  • In turn, the growth of education provided important support for the Industrial Revolution, and the economy began to grow exponentially
  • As the 19th century progressed, life expectancy and the economy reached the point where it became necessary, and affordable, to introduce national pension schemes

Germany was the first in 1889, with a small pension for those aged 65. The UK followed in 1909, with a pension for those aged 70.

Today, there is a need to go further, as I noted in my letter to the Financial Times last month.  

Many people become physically and mentally tired of their current roles in their fifties. We therefore need to introduce add a retraining stage to our lives, supported by health policies focused on quality of time. 


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