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

    Nature of science

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

    430 BC – 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.”

    1000 AD – 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.

    Rights: Public domain

    Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

    Lady Mary Wortley Montagu brought to England the procedure to inoculate against smallpox.

    From the painting by Jean Baptiste Vanmour.

    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.

    Rights: Public domain

    Edward Jenner

    Edward Jenner (1749–1823), doctor and scientist, has been credited as the pioneer of smallpox vaccine and is known as the Father of Immunology. Here Dr Jenner is seen vaccinating a young boy against smallpox.

    Lithograph by Gaston Mélingue.

    1837 – Recognition of microorganisms

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

    1847 – Hand cleaning to reduce deaths

    Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis publishes his observations of the dramatic difference hand disinfection makes to death rates on maternity wards, though at the time, other doctors dismiss his findings. During the Crimean War (1853–1856), Florence Nightingale implements hand washing and other hygiene practices in British army hospitals.

    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.

    Rights: Public domain, copyright expired

    Louis Pasteur

    Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) was a French chemist who made several key discoveries. He proved that infectious diseases were caused by microorganisms, developed the first vaccines and invented pasteurisation.

    Painting of Pasteur by Albert Edelfelt, 1885.

    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.

    Rights: Wellcome Collection, CC-BY-4.0


    This image from 1908 shows early pustules on a patient's leg and foot in a case of unmodified smallpox.

    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.

    What is an adjuvant?

    Dr Mattie Timmer (Victoria University of Wellington) and Dr Bridget Stocker (Malaghan Institute) describe an adjuvant as a substance that is added to a vaccine to make that vaccine more effective. An adjuvant alerts the immune system to the vaccine, making the immune response more immediate and specific to the antigen in the vaccine.

    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.

    Rights: Public domain


    Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus, which can be effectively prevented through immunisation.

    Photo by CDC/Dr. Heinz F. Eichenwald

    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.

    Rights: Baylor College of Medicine

    David Vetter

    David Vetter, known as the ‘boy in the bubble’, lived in a sterile isolator to keep him alive and germ-free until a bone marrow transplant could be performed. In this image Dr William Shearer and Dr Mary Murphy are preparing David for his bone marrow transplant.

    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.

    2017 – Italy makes vaccinations compulsory for children

    Italian government rules that children must be vaccinated against 12 common illnesses before they can enrol for state-run schools.

    2019 – New Zealand measles outbreak

    This is the worse measles epidemic since 1938, with over 2,000 confirmed cases of measles, the majority in the Auckland region. This led to an increase in demand for measles vaccination.

    2020 – Coronavirus outbreak

    In January, Chinese authorities confirmed a new type of coronavirus, COVID-19, which affects the respiratory system. There have been a very large number of deaths and millions impacted worldwide, it has been delcared as a pandemic by the World Helath Organisation. More information is on the New Zealand Government’s Unite against COVID-19 website.

    Rights:, CC BY-SA 4.0

    Coronavirus structure

    Coronaviruses all contain RNA surrounded by a lipoprotein coat. In 2020, this SARS-CoV-2 virus caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

    (Labels have been adapted from the original by

    2020–2021 – COVID-19 vaccine

    Previous work on vaccines for the coronavirus diseases SARS and MERS helped researchers from around the world work to accelerate the development of various COVID-19 vaccines. Due to the urgent need for this vaccine – compressed schedules that shortened the standard vaccine development timeline were implemented. Some countries such as the UK started vaccinations at the end of 2020, New Zealand started a country-wide programme in mid 2021 and by the end of that year just over 90% of eligible people were double vacinated.

    Related content

    Explore further the history of vaccination and current immunisation in New Zealand.

    Useful links

    This website provides more information on the history of vaccines.

    A timeline of epidemics in New Zealand from 1817–2009 from Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

    The National Library have a wide range of resources in this Topic Explorer set that looks at pandemics and epidemics with specific reference to Aotearoa New Zealand, the impact on Māori communities and also the wider Pacific region.

    See our Pinterest board on the Coronavirus outbreak for a collection of related resources.

    The New Zealand Government’s Unite against COVID-19 website

      Published 18 October 2010, Updated 4 January 2022 Referencing Hub articles
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