With a “fine physique” and an “excellent voice,” Henry Austin Martin was “in the literature of medicine . . . a master, [who] never wearied in the study of history,” and possessed “one of the most valuable medical libraries in Boston”—especially on the subject of vaccination, according to his 1885 obituary in JAMA. In 1870, the then 46-year-old physician had launched a crusade advocating the benefits of bovine vaccination, or “true animal vaccination,” as he called it. The procedure would become the most significant contribution to the history of smallpox since Edward Jenner’s vaccine, according to JAMA.
Jenner’s famous preventive treatment for smallpox, developed in 1796, relied on the tissue of humans who had contracted cowpox. The Jenner technique, also known as arm-to-arm vaccination, involved collecting pus from an individual infected with cowpox disease and placing it into a small incision in a patient’s arm. Over the years, however, problems arose with Jennerian vaccination: it became less effective against smallpox and spread other diseases, most famously syphilis.
Scientists like Martin wondered if lymph from animals might provide a more reliable and “pure” source of vaccine than did pus from humans, but animal cases of cowpox were hard to come by, and most experiments failed until the 1860s. When cowpox broke out among cows in Beaugency, a short distance from Paris, several savants from the Imperial Academy of Medicine rushed to the countryside to collect samples and try a technique, developed in Naples and subsequently taught in Lyons, in which they inoculated other cows with the cowpox from the infected animals in order to increase the supply of material available for vaccines. The inoculations successfully transmitted cowpox to additional bovines. The French authorities then used the supply from the cows to inoculate people.
Martin learned of the discovery and sent his brother-in-law to Paris in 1870 to collect lymph samples from the Imperial Academy, which he used to inoculate three cows as an experimental source of cow-produced vaccine supply. Within one month, the Beaugency source induced stronger patient reactions than had been recorded in almost 40 years, and Martin wrote to The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, “I have considered it nothing less than a duty to [report the findings] without a day’s unnecessary delay.”
Many doctors, however, were skeptical of Martin’s claims, especially since he immediately began selling the bovine vaccinations. “The orthodox group of physicians didn’t see themselves doing it for money, but for science and humanitarian reasons,” says Joseph Gabriel, a medical historian at Florida State University.
One factor that changed the old guard’s position on bovine vaccination was a new smallpox outbreak that overran Europe and spread to Africa and America between 1870 and 1875, becoming one of history’s most virulent and devastating epidemics. In the United States, the disease ravaged San Francisco and Boston. With demand high, doctors required vast supplies of vaccine, and they turned to Martin’s version. They found that bovine-produced vaccine resulted in greater resistance to the smallpox virus than did the human-sourced vaccine.
Following the epidemic, Martin compiled reams of evidence in support of animals, and in the 1880s, medical professionals increasingly recognized the benefits of animals as the source of vaccine lymph. The change dramatically increased worldwide vaccine supplies. It was replaced in the early 20th century with vaccinia virus, a genetic cousin to cowpox that generally causes mild or asymptomatic infections, but induces resistance to smallpox.
Martin died of an “incurable disease”—diabetes—in 1884 at the age of 60. His JAMA obituary notes that, “By his aid a very considerable number of epidemics have been eradicated and numberless lives saved.”