To Wednesday Nite @ The Lab
Edward Jenner holds an iconic place in the history of the life sciences. He stands at the confluence–perhaps better, at the common source–of fields as varied as virology and public health, veterinary science and immunology. His work in the 1790’s testing whether intentional infection of humans with cowpox could make the human resistant to smallpox still stands as a huge step in global health. Besides smallpox, I can’t name for you another disease of humans that has been eradicated by humans.
Throughout the 18th century debate raged about two competing ways to safeguard crown princes and town apprentices from smallpox. The battles were fought in at least two languages. In Latin the diseases were variola and vaccinia; in English, smallpox and cowpox. Some sages advocated variolation–intentionally scratching a person with needle after first scratching a pustule on another person suffering only a mild case of smallpox. Others backed vaccination: inoculating a person with pus taken from a cowpox lesion onto another person. Jenner inoculated his test patients with both: first with cowpox, and after waiting some days, again with smallpox.
Jenner’s 1796 technique still resounds in our words: while “variolation” is nearly lost to us (befitting its utility as well as the demise of its namesake), “vaccination” has grown to mean preventing a disease by triggering immunity by intentional inoculation (often resulting in a mild infection). This is what docs prefer to call “immunizations” and kids just call “getting your shots.” Yet more than two centuries later, the controversy continues: now Edward Jenner is up against Jenny McCarthy.
For me the saga of smallpox and cowpox underscores the power of “The Path of One Medicine” as embraced by the School of Veterinary Medicine: “The diseases of animals closely mirror diseases in humans. Consequently, much of the knowledge obtained through basic and clinical research and patient care in humans can be applied to animals, and vice versa.” (wisbuild.doa.state.wi.us/Dfd_img/project_attachments/08C1C.DOC)
Although smallpox is gone, tuberculosis continues to scythe wide swaths through many poorer countries. Here in Wisconsin, it seems we’ve been on this path for a while. We are pretty proud of the work by Harry Russell that extended the tuberculin test developed for humans to use in dairy cattle (see http://www.asm.org/index.php/choma/71-membership/archives/852-russell-harry-luman). We’re also pretty proud of the single-grain feeding study (1907-1911) done in cattle that led to the discovery of vitamins.
That was 100 years ago. Now, I’m wondering where this lane of inquiry will take us in the next few years. One clue: google “rinderpest.” It may be one path, but it really does seem to go both ways. And it goes far, far beyond viruses and vitamins.
I hope you’ll come join us November 14 to hear Mark Markel, the new Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine, give his take on “The Path to One Medicine.”
Remember, we take next week off–Happy Thanksgiving!
UW-Madison and UW-Extension