Word of the month: Variolation

Variolation was the method of inoculation first used to immunize individuals against smallpox (Variola) with infected material taken from a patient or a recently variolated individual and transferred into a healthy person through cutting into the arm with a primitive scalpel in the hope that a mild, but protective, infection would result.

The method was first used in China, India, parts of Africa and the Middle East before it was introduced into England and North America in the 1720s in the face of some opposition.

The term variolation refers solely to inoculation with smallpox virus and is not interchangeable with vaccination. The latter term was first used in 1800. Its Afro-Asian history should remind us that Western scientific medicine often has its roots in the ‘Orient’.