Episode 13. Vaccines: The women that poked and prodded

There are some parts of medicine that have been around for so long we sometimes forget that they were new at some point, and the vaccine is one of them. But with the COVID vaccine at the forefront of media and conversations these days, we thought it would be interesting to take a look back at the history of vaccines and of course, highlight the role of female-identifying individuals in the development, promotion and success of vaccines through the ages. We start with the earliest inoculations that took place in Ancient China and India and end here in the present, with the development of COVID vaccines. We talk about cowpox, milkmaids, polio, and more! Then in our Feminist Corner discussion, we dive into questions of competition in research, ways women navigate their roles in these spaces and issues of access and privilege when it comes to COVID vaccine distribution. 

Feminist Corner:

What was one point that stuck with you? Or a part in history that was really shocking?

When it comes to science and research, there’s a LOT of competition and racing towards results. How do you think women feed into or are left out of that narrative? Why do you think that is?

It’s very much a privilege to have access to the COVID vaccine, but not everyone is choosing to get it or has access to it. And I didn’t talk about the history of this as much, but I was thinking about women of color and their roles both in research as investigators and as subjects, both willing and coerced. So my question is, what considerations need to be made to ensure equitable access to this vaccine? And how does that impact our approach in communities of color?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

China and India in the 1500s where several accounts of smallpox inoculations are known

  • Late 1600s: Emperor K’ang Hsi survived smallpox as a child and wanted his children to be protected, so he ground up smallpox scabs and blew them into their nostrils

Several smallpox epidemics after that across different countries, India, Spain, North America

  • The mortality rate for smallpox was 20-30% and it infected all people, but had a higher mortality rate in the rich than the poor. 

Though there is evidence of the smallpox inoculation occuring in ancient China and India as I mentioned before and also in Africa and the Middle East, the most well known of the smallpox inoculation was in England where a physician named Edward Jenner noticed that a lot of his patients has scars from smallpox. 

  • Jenner noticed that all of this patients had these scars from the smallpox they had suffered through, except for milk maids
  • Realized was that they had been infected with cowpox which gave them some immunity against smallpox
  • Sarah Nelms and other milkmaids were the source of this new vaccine that Jenner was using on a bunch of people, and we never talk about them

But Edward Jenner was born in 1749 and actually in 1718, a British woman named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had her son variolated in Constantinople.

  • Procedure worked so she brought the practice of variolation to England and had her daughter variolated
  • She tried spreading the word about inoculation in England and at first there was a LOT of resistance
  • Interesting that this woman popularized inoculations and yet we’ve only heard of Edward Jenner, this random male doctor

Polio research:

  • There were many women on the teams that made the polio vaccines possible but a lot of the records were so badly kept that the women couldn’t be identified
  • Dr. Isabel Morgan, a prominent virologist who supported Jonas Salk in his work to develop a killed vaccine when no one else did because she has been the first to successfully inoculate a killed-virus vaccine into monkeys
  • Bernice Eddy was a virologist and epidemiologist whose concerns with the vaccine were cast aside by all the men she approached about them, leading to 41,000 kids getting polio
  • Mothers across the nation took part in the annual Million Mothers March, to raise millions of dollars to support the development of a polio vaccine

Dr. Anna Wessels Williams, who isolated a strain of diphtheria in 1894, later developed a vaccine

Drs. Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering researched pertussis, also known as whooping cough

Dr. Margaret Pittman did research on Haemophilus influenzae, the bacterium strain that causes bacterial meningitis

Dr. Anne Szarewski showed that human papillomavirus was linked to cervical cancer

Dr. Rachel Schneerson created the first pneumonia and meningitis vaccine which was also a conjugate vaccine, a type of vaccine that safely protected young children

Dr. Ruth Bishop led a team of researchers who discovered rotavirus which is a major cause of severe diarrhea in children and led to a successful vaccine against it

COVID vaccine:

  • Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian-born immigrant to the US, who worked at BioNTech a German start-up founded by Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, a husband-wife team
  • Nita Patel is leading a team that identifies as “all-female” in the Novavax vaccine
  • One of Moderna’s trials was led by a Dr. Lisa Jackson who works at the University of Washington and that doesn’t even begin to cover the female lab techs, grad students, doctors and researchers who’ve been working on this vaccine and its trials for months now


Bloomberg – Are you a robot? (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://www.bloomberg.com/tosv2.html?vid=&uuid=1ddb7e10-644f-11eb-b270-cbaf30d56b43&url=L29waW5pb24vYXJ0aWNsZXMvMjAyMC0xMi0wMy93aHktYXJlLWFsbC10aGUtcHJvbWluZW50LWNvdmlkLXZhY2NpbmVzLWRldmVsb3BlZC1ieS13b21lbg==

Datta, S., Bhatla, N., Burgess, M., Lehtinen, M., & Bock, H. (2009). Women and vaccinations: From smallpox to the future, a tribute to a partnership benefiting humanity for over 200 years. Human Vaccines, 5(7), 450–454. https://doi.org/10.4161/hv.8805

Kiger, P. J. (2019, November 25). Did Colonists Give Infected Blankets to Native Americans as Biological Warfare? Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://www.history.com/news/colonists-native-americans-smallpox-blankets

Lisa A. Jackson, MD, MPH. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://www.kpwashingtonresearch.org/our-research/our-scientists/jackson-lisa

Martin, S. (2020, September 17). The Networks of Women Behind the Polio Vaccine. Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://www.ladyscience.com/features/the-netowrks-of-women-behind-the-polio-vaccine

Nature Editorial. (n.d.). The origins of vaccination. Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://www.nature.com/articles/d42859-020-00006-7?error=cookies_not_supported&code=8feec2f7-8887-48c5-961f-53333ac97e3e

The women who made modern vaccines work. (2019, December 9). Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/the-women-who-made-modern-vaccines-work

Timeline | History of Vaccines. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://www.historyofvaccines.org/timeline/all#EVT_102203

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