Medical History


Variolation, Vaccination and Popular Resistance in Early Colonial South India

Niels Brimnesa1

a1 Department of History, Aarhus University, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark

The campaigns to prevent smallpox in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are commonly understood as the first attempts of large-scale state-sponsored medical intervention in society as such. Before the discovery of the cowpox vaccine inoculation with variolous matter—known as variolation—was the most widespread preventive against the disease. This practice was well established in parts of Asia and introduced to Europe by Mary Wortley Montagu from Constantinople in 1721. While variolation achieved some popularity—particularly in Britain—Edward Jenner's discovery of the cowpox vaccine in 1796 intensified the efforts to combat smallpox, and vaccination was introduced to large parts of the world within a few years. Although the spread of immunization against smallpox is commonly described as highly successful, the campaigns also represented an early encounter between an elitist state-sponsored medicine and various forms of popular resistance.