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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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