Milkmaids once were common in England and elsewhere (they seem to have been rare in the young USA). They were women who milked cows, and they were famous for having beautiful complexions. Milkmaids are a feature of a number of old poems proclaiming their beauty.
But why milkmaids? Milkmaids’ famed complexions are part of a history of disease and medicine. The cows that the women milked were prone to a condition called “cowpox.”
Cowpox is a cousin of the deadly smallpox. which is related to the deadly disease smallpox. Smallpox developed hideous blister-like marks victim’s bodies. People who survived the smallpox often had pockmarked skin and faces.
Milkmaids were exposed to cowpox and acquired partial immunity to smallpox. They did not experience the deformities caused by smallpox. In a world full of pockmarked faces, milkmaids stood out for the smoothness of their skin.
The example of milkmaids seems to have led to a medical milestone. In 1796, the British doctor Edward Jenner started inoculating against smallpox by using material from cowpox. Jenner’s inoculations gained enough public interest for the idea of inoculation to gain acceptance.
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