The History of Vaccines – Smallpox to COVID-19

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In the 1800s, major breakthroughs in medical technology and the understanding of disease led to the development of vaccines for some of humanity’s most deadly illnesses: smallpox, rabies, diphtheria, and tetanus. In China and many African countries, the traditional practice of smallpox inoculation informed the work of Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur and others, as they experimented with weakened and less deadly viruses to trick the body into producing immunity. You may have heard of Jenner and Pasteur– giants in the discovery and production of vaccines, but the story does not end with them.

A cropped photo taken from a 1908 medical supplies catalogue, showing two syringes and their parts.

Diphtheria antitoxin was injected using antitoxin syringes (crop), 1908

Ingenium, as part of Google Arts and Culture’s A Brief History of Vaccination initiative, has launched two virtual exhibitions on the history of vaccine development and production in Canada, focusing on the contributions of Connaught Medical Research Laboratories in Toronto. Our collection contains dozens of artifacts from Connaught labs, which specialized in public health and preventive medicines such as antitoxins, vaccines, and insulin.

Part One of the exhibit puts the Lab into both a global and Canadian context, and showcases artifacts in Ingenium's collection.

Part Two focuses on Connaught’s work on an influenza vaccine for the 1918 flu, and its instrumental role in the development of the polio vaccine in the mid-1950s.

A close- up of a small glass vial containing the Pfizer-BioTNTech COVID-19 vaccine, sitting in the palm of a hand.

The vial of the Pfizer-BioTNTech COVID-19 vaccine recently acquired for Ingenium’s collection (Artifact # 2021.0003). 

As a companion to the historical exhibits, Ingenium is also proud to showcase our latest acquisition – the empty vial from the first COVID 19 vaccine given to a Canadian healthcare worker.

This virtual exhibition follows the vaccine from production to packaging, distribution, and finally, administration.


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Kristy von Moos

Kristy von Moos is the Digital Content Officer at Ingenium. Kristy has a BA in History and Philosophy from St. Thomas University, and an MA in Public History from Carleton University. She has worked with cultural media, research, and virtual exhibit companies, and enjoys bringing history, education, and technology together.