This timeline provides a look at some of the historical aspects of fighting infection, covering early discoveries on germs, vaccination, how are our bodies help us to get better and more.

Nature of science

Science knowledge is continually developing and changing as new knowledge is discovered.

430BC - Early natural immunity noted

General Thucydides notes the appearance of natural immunity in victims of a plague in Athens stating, “No one was ever attacked a second time.”

1000AD - First records of variolation

The Chinese inoculate people against smallpox with material squeezed from smallpox pustules.

1718 - Variolation

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, observes the positive effects of variolation on the native population and has the technique performed on her own children. Subsequently, the practice is brought to England.

1798 - First official vaccination

Vaccination is pioneered by an English doctor, Edward Jenner. He is the first to show that vaccination with cowpox could protect against smallpox. Find out more about the history of vaccination.

1837 - Recognition of microorganisms

Theodore Schwann is the first to describe the role of microorganisms in putrefaction and fermentation.

1854–1885 - Pasteurisation and vaccines

Biologist and chemist Louis Pasteur becomes aware of the presence of germs and is responsible for the process of pasteurisation. He also develops vaccination against diseases such as rabies and chicken cholera by injecting subjects with a weakened form of the disease.

1867 - First use of sterile conditions

Joseph Lister is the first to introduce aseptic practice in surgery using carbolic acid.

1883 - Defence of the body involves cells

Zoologist Elie Metchnikoff suggests that cells are involved in the defence of the body. He studies single-cell organisms and notices they take in food by phagocytosis (ingesting). He suggests phagocyte cells would operate in a similar way to remove microorganisms.

1890 - Antibodies

Emil von Behring and Shibasaburo Kitasato isolate the first of the antitoxins. What these researchers call ‘antitoxins’ are actually antibodies to specific disease substances.

1899–1903 - Antigen

Ladislas Deutsch (Detre) coins this phrase for substances he thought appeared before antibodies. By 1903, he realises that antigens induce the production of antibodies.

1904 - Immunisation made compulsory

A Supreme Court decision in England removes an individual’s right to refuse vaccine immunisations for smallpox. Those who still refuse are fined.

1906 - Allergies

Clemens von Pirquet coins the word ‘allergy’ to describe a hypersensitive reaction.

1912 - Whooping cough vaccine

The first whooping cough vaccine is created by French bacteriologists Jules Bordet and Octave Gengou.

1943 - Adjuvants

Alum or alum-based substances are added to vaccines to improve their effectiveness.

1950 - Suppressor T cells

Suppressor T cells are discovered.

1964–1968 - T and B cells work together

Scientists find that T and B cells co-operate and co-ordinate together in immune response.

1971 - MMR vaccine

Live weakened measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is licensed.

1972 - US stops smallpox vaccination

The standard vaccine for smallpox is stopped because it is considered that the risk of the vaccination for serious complications is greater than the risk for the reintroduction of smallpox.

1982 - First synthetic vaccine

The world’s first synthetic vaccine is created.

1984 - David Vetter’s transplant fails

A bone marrow transplant given to David Vetter for the treatment of severe combined immunodeficiency (his immune system did not work) fails.

1985 - Identifying genes

Rapid identification of genes for immune cells, antibodies, cytokines and other immunological structures begins.

1997 - New adjuvants

New adjuvants are licensed to strengthen vaccines.

1999 onwards - Vaccines for hay fever allergies

Vaccines for hay fever allergies enter clinical trials.

    Published 18 October 2010, Updated 24 August 2016