What the Milkmaids Knew

By Mark Bowser

As we are coming out of the pandemic COVID-19, I’m reminded of another killer that was far worse. It is estimated that the deadly smallpox disease killed between 300 million and 500 million people in history. It wasn’t quite a death sentence if you caught smallpox, but it was pretty close.

In 1763, Edward Jenner was a young apprentice to a doctor in England as he prepared for a medical career himself. One day, as the doctor was examining a young milkmaid, Jenner overheard the milkmaid contradict the doctor. The doctor told the milkmaid that she may have smallpox. The milkmaid expressed that it was impossible for her to have smallpox because she had had cowpox. She then told the doctor that everyone knows that once you have had cowpox that you never catch smallpox.

Before we go on, let me make clear a couple of terms that contemporary readers may not be familiar with. First of all, what was a milkmaid? Milkmaids were young girls who were hired by dairy farmers to milk their cows.

Another term you may be unfamiliar with is cowpox. Cowpox was a mild version of smallpox that the cows could contract and then pass it on to people in the form of sores, usually on their hands.

Edward Jenner never forgot that conversation he overheard between the doctor and the milkmaid. For the next 30 years he pondered it in his mind and in his heart. In his spare time, he would go to the dairy farms and just watch the milkmaids do their work. Was there any truth in the milkmaid’s claim?

On May 14, 1796, Sarah Nelmes who was a milkmaid came to Dr. Jenner complaining of a cowpox sore. Dr. Jenner had an idea and he decided to take a great risk. He took a tissue sample from the sore on Sarah’s hand and inoculated a healthy eight-year-old boy James Phelps with it.

As expected, James became ill with the disease but it was very mild. That is when Dr. Jenner took his greatest risk. After James recovered from the cowpox, Dr. Jenner inoculated him with straight smallpox. What was the result? James never caught smallpox.

Because of the wisdom of the milkmaid and the courage of Dr. Edward Jenner, today we have vaccines for all sorts of diseases and viruses. Even though we may not agree with the risk that Dr. Jenner took, aren’t we glad that we have the vaccines that his risk made possible?

There is no success without risk. As COVID vaccines are made available worldwide, we have not only Operation Warp Speed to thank, we have the milkmaids to thank as well. Oh, and let’s not forget Dr. Jenner. Thanks doc.

*Mark Bowser is the author of several books including “Sales Success” with Zig Ziglar, “Nehemiah on Leadership,” and “Some Gave It All” with Danny Lane (endorsed by Chuck Norris.)

*Mark Bowser is the host of the popular podcast “Let Me Tell You A Story with Mark Bowser.” Subscribe today at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, and other popular podcast platforms.

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