Cows and Questions

purple microscope culture

Cows and Questions

In the 18th century all across Europe, physicians watched helplessly as hundreds of thousands of people died from smallpox every year. Smallpox was deadly, particularly for children. Roughly 80 percent of children with smallpox died. Of those that lived, many were left blind or disfigured.

People tried curing it with special blankets and herbal remedies. One doctor even recommended drinking six bottles of beer every day. Not surprisingly, nothing was effective. The ultimate question was, “How can we stop our citizens from dying?”

No answers came to light until 1796 when Edward Jenner, a British physician, reversed that question. He observed that the women who milked cows never caught smallpox, and asked, “Why don’t milkmaids get smallpox?” The answer was that they were immunized by exposure to cowpox, which is relatively harmless.

Dr. Jenner then extracted pus from a milkmaid’s cowpox lesion and injected it into an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps. Two months later, he injected young James with pus he’d taken from a fresh smallpox lesion — and James did not fall ill.

Jenner named his discovery “vaccination” after the Latin word for cow. This massive contribution was spurred by a simple reversal of a critical question — not, “How can we prevent smallpox?” but, “Why don’t milkmaids get smallpox?”

Reflect: What problems are you or your team trying to solve? Try framing the question in a new way.