As a Baby Boomer  I can only hope that  a vaccine against Alzheimer’s will be  developed before my alarming short-term memory loss blossoms into full blown dementia 😨.  Meanwhile, I practice spelling ‘world’ backwards, and counting back from one hundred in sevens.  I was shocked to hear that dementia is the main cause of death in Australian women.

Of course our attention has now turned to vaccines against Covid-19, and anti-vaxxers are becoming increasingly vocal. I can’t help wondering whether they would accept a dementia vaccine.

My first experience of vaccination remains vivid. Compulsory smallpox vaccination was an eagerly anticipated rite of passage for young Aussies heading overseas in the nineteen sixties and seventies. We cheerfully rolled up our sleeves and wore our disfiguring scars like badges of honour. My older sister was disappointed when her arm failed to produce the slightest pimple. She was told this was because she had already been exposed to cowpox; legacy of being raised on a Tasmanian  dairy farm.

Few outside the medical profession would be aware that the word vaccination derives from the Latin  vacca, for cow.  It is a reminder that a bovine virus led to the discovery of vaccination as a protection against disease;  initially  smallpox.

The connection between smallpox and the relatively harmless cowpox virus was made in the eighteenth century by Edward Jenner, a country doctor from Gloucestershire.

Edward Jennner  created the vaccine against smallpox.(Wikipedia)
Edward Jennner (Wikipedia)

Jenner had noticed that many local dairy maids emerged unscathed from smallpox epidemics. In 1796 he extracted fluid from a pustule on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes,  then  introduced the virus  to 8 year old James Phipps via a simple scratch. The little boy experienced only a mild fever.  When his experiment with what became known as ‘vaccination’ proved a success, Jenner established a free clinic for local people. Not everyone supported him.  An anti -vaccination society sprang up, and a satirical cartoon was circulated showing patients sprouting cow-like growths. 

Opponents of the smallpox vaccine produced cartoons to alarm the populace!
Opponents of vaccination produced cartoons to alarm the populace! (Wikipedia)

It is less widely known that a Dorset dairy farmer by the name of Benjamin Jesty had already experimented with vaccination some twenty years earlier. During an outbreak of smallpox in 1774, Jesty innoculated his wife and two sons with matter drawn from the udder of an infected cow.  Jesty himself was already immune due to his close contact with the herd.  He was widely criticized for this action at the time, but later his contribution to public health was recognized and he was awarded a gold medal.

The Jesty farm, where  a smallpox vaccine was tested in 1774.
The Jesty farm in Dorset.
L0050588 Benjamin Jesty. Oil painting by M.W. Sharp, 1805. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Benjamin Jesty. Oil painting by M.W. Sharp, 1805. 1805 By: Michael William SharpPublished: [1805] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Benjamin Jesty

Having  identified our great-great-grandmother as Martha Guppy, a dairymaid (co-incidentally from Dorset), I am beginning to think that my sister’s  failed vaccination had  as much to do with  genes  as visits to  our cowshed.  A scar on my arm proves the jab worked in my own case,  but we may have inherited a resistance to smallpox from Martha, along with rather solid ankles!  Whether she suffered from dementia is of course, unknown.  The poor soul died far too young for it to develop.

Opposition to the smallpox vaccine continued into the 20th century. The highly respected Canadian born physician Dr William Osler spoke out in 1911;

The smallpox vaccine challenge issued by Dr William Osler.
Sir William Osler, who had no time for anti-vaxxers.

Apparently there were no takers for Dr Osler’s challenge. What a surprise!


After  reading an article about research into a vaccine against Alzheimers I forwarded  it to my sister.  Faced with the prospect of marrying a local farmer and becoming a fifth generation dairymaid, she left home at seventeen to train as a nurse.  She was later employed as a recreational therapist in a dementia unit.   As a fellow Baby Boomer, she is no doubt  watching scientific developments  with both professional and personal interest!

Dementia and Alzheimer’s are modern day scourges of society, just as smallpox, polio, typhoid and many other diseases were in the past. Unfortunately, we must now add Covid-19 to the mix. I am so thankful to have had my two shots of vaccine.

For a history of vaccination in Australia, CLICK HERE


  1. Pauline, a vaccine would be wonderful. My Nan suffered with dementia and now my beautiful Mum. It breaks my heart to watch her struggle with the anxiety that the early stages of dementia brings. My Dad is a wonderful man and I can see the mpact it is having on him too.

    • Pauline

      Oh dear Mardi, how awful for you all. Poor Jeannie is in a constant sate of anxiety. She is still very aware of her memory loss and it must be terrifying.

  2. Very interesting Pauline. I must be well into the first stages by now; I couldn’t do either of those things.

  3. My husband remembered getting a slightly different smallpox inoculation in Perth in the early 60’s. An ampoule was broken and scratched on the skin. The doctor told him that it introduced ‘just enough’ as a whole syringe was too much and made that over-reaction that made a large sore..

    • Pauline

      Wow, he sounds a very progressive doctor Osa. I remember having quite a large sore. It was worth it to be able to take off on my travels though

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