Boilly, Louis-Leopold (French, 1761-1845)

A Vaccinator Vaccinating a Young Child

Reference Type:
Small pox is believed to have existed as long ago as ancient Egypt. Throughout the following millennia, the greatly feared disease killed millions of individuals from all social classes on several continents. In the eighteenth century, when Edward Jenner (1749-1823) was born, it was responsible for one in three child deaths, and wiped out 10% of the population (up to 20% in urban areas). Early in the century there was a practice called variolation, in which scab materials from mild cases were scratched into the skin of healthy individuals in an effort to prevent the contraction of a worse and potentially fatal case. The inability to reliably differentiate strains of the disease, however, caused quite a number of deaths. Jenner himself had a terrifying experience with variolation at school: after being starved, purged, and bled to prepare his body, he and other boys were locked in a stable until they recovered. Jenner himself did practice variolation on his own patients because it was the accepted practice of the day. But when he heard the possibility that people who contracted cowpox did not seem to get smallpox he became intrigued. When a milk maid visited him in 1796 with a rash, it was determined that she had caught cowpox from one of her cattle. As a test, Jenner took material from her rash and rubbed it into scratches made on the 8-year-old son of his gardener. The boy became ill with cowpox but quickly recovered; from that experiment Jenner learned that cowpox could be passed from human to human. Then he variolated the boy, who never developed smallpox. In 1798 Jenner published his research, following it up over the next two years with the results of additional studies that supported his theory that cowpox could prevent smallpox. As often happens with new developments in medicine, Jenner’s results were questioned by colleagues and therefore feared by many members of the public. Parliament entered the debate by passing a law that forbade variolation in 1840, and by 1853 vaccination with cowpox was mandatory. The controversy reached France with the vaccine in 1801. Here, Louis-Léopold Boilly, who was known for painting scenes of everyday Parisian life, shows a physician administering the vaccine to a small child held by a calm yet concerned mother. Often, families vaccinated the entire household at one time, thus it might be suggested that the other children in the scene are next in line for the still very new process. Several of them are very interested in what the doctor is doing and watch closely; the child on the right seems quite frightened, grasping her mother for protection; and the girl standing at the left has turned away from the scene but cannot resist looking back. (Source for information on Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox: Notes by Mariann Smith
History of Medicine
History of Science
Infectious Disease
Wellcome Library, London