Just like Henry VIII having six wives and Newton discovering gravity through a falling apple, the invention of the vaccination technique is one of those classic historical facts we Brits studied in countless school lessons, but the origin of the word itself is something not often considered.
It was smallpox that was the first disease we were immunised against using vaccination. Before the method was discovered, the contagious and deadly disease had caused the deaths of around 300-500 million people. Then, in 1796, the physician Edward Jenner came along. He had noticed that milkmaids who contracted a mild form of the cowpox disease never contracted smallpox. He carried out an experiment on the eight-year-old James Phipps, inserting a small amount of cowpox-infected pus into the boy’s arm. He then proved that Phipps was immune to smallpox and confirmed that vaccination was successful.
Vaccination as a word was taken from the name of the cowpox virus variolae vaccinae and the vaccinae part comes from the adjective vaccine which meant ‘pertaining to cows’ from the 18th century onwards. Vaccine is derived from the Latin vacca, ‘cow’, which is where the French vache and Spanish vaca originated.
Interestingly, vaccination the noun came before vaccinate the verb – the former being recorded in 1800, three years before the latter is found. This happened through a word formation process called back-formation, where speakers reanalyse a word, removing supposed affixes (like how self-destruct is found in science fiction from a back-formation of self-destruction even though the related verb of destruction is destroy).
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was Louis Pasteur who was responsible for using the term for diseases other than smallpox, as he developed the technique to immunise against rabies and chicken cholera.