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Vaccines as Corpse Medicine

Authored by Hanna Polasky
Published on 11th April, 2024 11 min read

Vaccines as Corpse Medicine

“The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!” by James Gillray (1802).

The history of medicine is complex and full of seemingly contradictory statements. Early modern understanding of medicine was built upon treatises published centuries earlier and was divided along lines that might seem illogical to the modern researcher. For example, though it has fallen out of favour in recent centuries, the human body was used in medicine for more than a thousand years. Though potentially repulsive to the modern reader, the human corpse was used extensively in curing various medical conditions—and so was widely available in apothecaries, now known as pharmacies—well into the nineteenth century.[1] Although Richard Sugg has recognised that the human body was used in medical treatments throughout the late eighteenth century, I would argue that the use of corpse medicine was more common than is often acknowledged. Most notably, up until 1870, which saw the advent of “animal vaccines” (vaccines produced through the use of animal tissue), corpse medicine existed in the form of smallpox vaccines.[2]

The modern practice of vaccination gained the attention of the medical community in England during the late eighteenth century.[3] Vaccination, in this case, refers to the introduction of cowpox in the form of lymph or scabs to a small scratch on a patient’s arm. The aim is to produce immunity to the smallpox virus. This, however, was not the first instance in which diseased matter was introduced to a patient. The practice of inoculation—the introduction of the smallpox virus to a patient in a controlled fashion—originated in Asia. The earliest written account of inoculation in China dates from 1549 and assumes that the reader understood the practice, indicating that it was already widespread, if rarely written about.[4] The intrinsic difference between inoculation and vaccination is the virus with which the patient is infected: inoculation uses smallpox, whereas vaccination uses cowpox. Crucially, however, the fundamental process, the introduction of infected human tissue to an intentionally created wound on a patient, is the same in both practices.[5]

An eighteenth century advertisement for inoculation.[6]

In the modern world, the vast majority of people never interact with a dead body. Corpses are the purview of the undertaker, the coroner, the pathologist, and the forensic examiner. Throughout the Early Modern period, however, the living routinely saw, worked with, and even consumed the dead. As Sugg has put it, 

Drugs were made from Egyptian mummies and the dried bodies of those drowned in North African desert sandstorms. Later in the era, the corpses of hanged criminals offered a new and less exotic source of human flesh. Human blood was also swallowed: sometimes fresh and hot, seconds after a beheading; sometimes direct from a living donor’s body; sometimes dried, powdered or distilled with alchemical precision. Human fat was one of the most enduring substances of all: it was usually applied externally in the form of ointments or plasters. Certain parts of the bone of the skull were swallowed as a powder or in liquid distillations. In London chemists’ shops, one could see entire human skulls for sale. Some had a growth of botanical moss, which could be powdered and used to treat nosebleeds and other forms of haemorrhaging. Both skull bone and the moss of the skull should—most authorities agreed—be derived from a man who had met a violent death, preferably by hanging or drowning.[7]

This is the world in which inoculation entered the medical arena. The average person would not have been bothered at the prospect of someone else’s blood being inserted into their body. Similar remedies had been recognised for centuries, though not necessarily as preventative measures against disease.

Illustration depicting skull moss from Gerard’s Herball.

Both corpse medicine and inoculation existed simultaneously at a time when medicine was struggling to find its identity. Traditional doctors in England studied the works of Galen and widely believed in “humoral” medicine, as Galen had described it more than a thousand years earlier.[8] To summarise, “Galen believed that the body contained four important liquids called humours, which were phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. These humours must remain in balance for a person to remain healthy. If there was too much of one humour, illness occurred”.[9]  Followers of Paracelsus, on the other hand,

believed in three humors: salt (representing stability), sulfur (representing combustibility), and mercury (representing liquidity); he defined disease as a separation of one humor from the other two. Galenists believed that a disease of a certain intensity would be cured by a medicine of opposite intensity (principle of contrariety). Paracelsus and his followers espoused the position that like cures like; that is, “a poison in the body would be cured by a similar poison,” (principle of similitude) but the dosage is very important.[10]

Paracelsian medicine is more similar to our modern conception of medicine. However, both followers of Galen and followers of Paracelsus believed in the efficacy of using the human corpse for medical purposes.

Apothecary jar for “mummia”, the name given to human mummies.

The use of the human body as a medicinal agent can be observed during the period in which Galen lived. For example, though he decried the use of it as repugnant, the blood of a gladiator was a known remedy for epilepsy in ancient Rome.[11] It is worth noting that although Galen disliked its use, he did not dispute its efficacy.     

Interestingly, the instructions for the creation of a medicine made from human tissue and the collection of the material used to make early vaccines are similar. For example, the timing for the collection of vaccine material or “lymph”[12] is specific:

Which is the best time to take the lymph? The best time to take the lymph, if the vesicle be running its proper course, is at the end of one week from the date of the vaccination- that is to say, on the day week of the vaccination, at the same hour. At this time the vesicles are usually in perfection, and contain a quantity of lymph; this time is also just that which precedes the formation of the areola.[13]

This quotation—dating from 1863—indicates that while there were guidelines for the proper collection of lymph, this was not seen as the only time but rather as the optimal time. It would probably still work as vaccine material if collected at another time, just not as effectively.

 “Commencement Progress and Termination of the Vaccine Pock”[14]

 There are similar guidelines for the collection of human tissue intended for use as a medical ingredient. Sugg has explained that for a Paracelsian mummy, one needed “flesh taken from fresh corpses (usually those of executed felons, and ideally within about three days) and then treated and dried”.[15] One recipe from 1609 calls for "the carcass of a red man, whole, clear without blemish, of the age of twenty four years, that hath been hanged, broke upon a wheel, or thrust-through, having been for one day and night exposed to the open air, in a serene time".[16]

This type of preserved corpse was what medical practitioners used when an Egyptian mummy was not available. This practice evidences how, just as with early vaccine material, the temporal element was crucial to attaining peak efficacy.

The types of tissue used for both eighteenth and nineteenth century vaccines and corpse medicines are also similar. A popular ingredient in both was powdered scabs or blood. Both substances would have been pulverised before use as medical ingredients. According to Sugg, flesh “of various sorts was used chiefly against internal or external bruising and bleeding. It was usually powdered, and applied externally in the form of plasters, and internally in liquid mixtures”.[17] This practice is very similar to the use of vaccine crusts (scabs from vaccinia sores) for vaccination. For example, in 1841 Dr John Epps was quoted in The Lancet. He described how “crusts, when levigated [worked into a fine powder] and moistened, and worked into a fine pulp, have been used by many practitioners”.[18] Thus, we can observe that even the types of human flesh used were similar for both the practice of early modern corpse medicine and early vaccination.

Nineteenth century vaccination kit, including an envelope of vaccine crusts.

 Reevaluating vaccines as a modern form of corpse medicine requires us to recalibrate our perspective on the history of medical treatments. While vaccines are often lauded as a scientific triumph, and are typically viewed as indicative of the onset of modernity, we must recognise that their invention stemmed from earlier, pre-modern practices that readily utilised human tissue as medicine. Vaccines were born from both the Galenian and Paracelsian medical traditions. As has been observed throughout this article, the science of vaccination built upon these early systems of medical thought, thereby extending the life of corpse medicine well into the nineteenth century.

[1] Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (London: Routledge, 2011), 394. 

[2] José Esparza, Seth Lederman, Andreas Nitsche, and Clarissa R. Damaso, “Early Smallpox Vaccine Manufacturing in the United States: Introduction of the “Animal Vaccine” in 1870, Establishment of “Vaccine Farms”, and the Beginnings of the Vaccine Industry,” Vaccine 38, 30 (June 2020): 4773–79, 2; Richard Sugg, “Corpse Medicine: Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires,” The Lancet 371, 9630 (June 2008): 2078–79. 

[3] Stefan Riedel, “Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination,” Proceedings (Baylor University Medical Center) 18, 1 (January 2005): 21–25. 

[4] Arthur Boylston, “The Origins of Inoculation,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 105, 7 (July 2012): 309–13.

[5] In some Chinese traditions powdered smallpox scabs were inhaled rather than inserted beneath the skin.

[6] British Online Archives, Pandemics, Society, and Public Health, 1517–1925, “FA 115: Advertisement For Inoculation,” available at, image 1.

[7] Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires, 6.

[8] Humoral theory was associated with Hippocrates and was elaborated upon by Galen.

[9] Rachel Hajar, “Medicine from Galen to the Present: A Short History,” Heart Views: The Official Journal of the Gulf Heart Association 22, 4 (2021): 307–8. 

[10] J. F. Borzelleca, “Paracelsus: Herald of Modern Toxicology,” Toxicological Sciences 53, 1 (January 2000): 2–4.

[11] Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires, 15.

[12] “The clear liquid contained in the pock of vaccinia, holding in suspension the microorganisms peculiar to the disease”. This definition is lifted from Appleton’s Medical Dictionary (New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1916).

[13] Graily Hewitt, “Lectures on Vaccination,” The Lancet 81, 2078 (June 1863): 711–713.

[14] British Online Archives, Pandemics, Society, and Public Health, 1517–1925, “Hume tracts 99: Report By The Royal Jennerian Society Discussing The Extermination of The Smallpox By Vaccination,” available at, image 65.

[15] Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires, 24.

[16] Richard Sugg, “Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Early Modern Medicinal Cannibalism”, Literature Compass 10, no. 11 (November 2013): 825–835. 

[17] Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires, 22.

[18] John Epps and M. M. Merquera, “Vaccine Crusts, Viewed as the Most Effectual Packages for the Preservation of the Vaccine Virus,” The Lancet 35, 915 (March 1841), 848.

Authored by Hanna Polasky

Hanna Polasky

Hanna Polasky got her undergraduate degree in anthropology from Bryn Mawr College, and her MSc in Paleopathology from Durham University. If it has to do with the history of fashion, medicine, or archaeology, she's definitely interested.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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