Skip to Main Content

Vaccines: An Evolving History

Special collections, objects, and artifacts for researching the history of vaccines, including development, use, hesitancy, and confidence.

Beyond Harvard

The following history of vaccine resources may be of additional interest. Most of the content mentioned below is available freely to all online. Want to contribute a new resource to this list? Send us an email. 


Guidance & Resources | Center for Disease Control

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) offers information and guidance on vaccines. Helpful resources include:

Community Archiving Projects

Digital Archives

Exhibits, Histories, & Timelines

Journal Articles

Teaching Resources


Vaccine Podcast Series:

  • The Antigen Podcast (Pfizer), Season 1. The Antigen is an eight-part audio-documentary style podcast about the scientific, cultural, and political elements of vaccination. We start with the basic science, review vaccine history, explore the many facets of their global impact – and the public sentiment about vaccines around the world. Listeners will hear from leading experts about the past, present, and future of this important innovation, as well as people whose families have been impacted by vaccine-preventable diseases.
  • This Podcast Will Kill You: Erin Welsh and Erin Allman Updyke are epidemiologists with a knack for explaining complicated concepts in simple terms. Each episode includes disease science and history, first-hand accounts and a themed cocktail recipe called a “quarantini.” 

    • Hit Me With Your Best (Polio) Shot: This episode explains polio, explores the long history of the disease and delves into the development of polio vaccines, including the origins of the oral polio vaccine developed by the late Dr. Albert B. Sabin.

    • Measles: The Worst Souvenir: Did you know measles could wipe out your immune system’s memory of other viruses it has encountered in the past? Unravel measles mysteries with this engaging episode, which was released while cases continued to soar in the United States in 2019.

    • Influenza Will Kill You: So important that it was their first episode ever, this one is a great primer about all things influenza. The bottom line? We should be really scared of the flu.

  • Endless Thread: Four-part series on Vaccination (WBUR): A four-part series on vaccine innovation, hysteria and the spread of disinformation. 

    • Episode 1: “Scabs, Pus and Puritans”. The problem with being healthy is you completely forget about what it feels like to be sick. In 2019 many people assume that the history of vaccination is recent history--maybe a few centuries of innovation starting in the late 1700s. The truth is much more convoluted: centuries of ancient customs developing slowly into a cycle of extremes--scientific innovation followed by fear, rejection, and sometimes, violence. In the first episode of our series, we explore this recurring cycle and how it echoes still in the fact-challenged year of 2019.

    • Episode 2: “The Flintstone Dilemma”. There was a time when the measles were common enough to be a source of comedy on TV shows like The Flintstones. So how did we go from joking about the measles to scary reports on the news about a growing international measles emergency? Anti-vaxxers say it’s a scam, while scientists say it’s the anti-vaxxers. In the second episode of our series, we embark on a search for truth, aided by renowned pediatrician Dr. Paul Offit and prominent anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree. Along the way, we look at how vaccines actually work, fallout from the swine flu pandemic, and the highly controversial suspected link between vaccines and autism.

    • Episode 3: “Going Viral”. You can’t tell the story of today’s anti-vax--or “vaccine hesitant”--movement without telling a story of technology and social media. There have always been members of populations who distrust medicine, but the word-of-mouth spread of that distrust has been brought to a fever pitch by the internet. Online, these communities have only become more insular, self-sustaining, and potent. But here’s a question: even if vaccines have saved millions around the world, can we really blame people whose families have suffered great loss for seeing causation instead of correlation? In the third episode of our series we look at the impact the internet has had on vaccine -hesitant communities, and hear from some of the community’s most well-known voices as well as the people who study the galvanizing power of the internet.

    • Episode 4: "Anatomy of an Outbreak”. Even considering the winding road of scientific advancement and the new expressway that is the internet, what the heck happened in Clark County? With reporting from the ground in Washington and Oregon, we take our fourth episode of the series to trace the societal pathogens, identify the symptoms, and try to prescribe a solution to what some are calling a “canary in the coal mine” for a near future of eroding herd immunity and increasing threats of outbreak for all kinds of diseases in the U.S.

    • Episode 5: “Talk to Me”. At the end of the day, our species only survives if we can communicate. In our fifth and final episode of the series, we follow a group whose radically simple solution for the current controversy has already started to pay dividends. We also tell the stories of people whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the vaccination controversy, and why some of them are still sticking to their guns.


Historic Context of Pandemics:


Covid-19 Vaccine:

  • The Antigen Podcast (Pfizer), Season 2: This special mini-series focuses on COVID-19, connecting with experts to give accurate information and updates on the global response to the pandemic. Over the course of the mini-series, we will look back at past global health emergencies, discuss efforts across the industry to research potential coronavirus vaccines and treatments, and look ahead to life after a crisis.
  • COVID-19 Podcast: The Race for a Vaccine (ISDA): How quickly will a COVID-19 vaccine be available, and will it be safe and effective? Dr. Kathryn Edwards of Vanderbilt University and Dr. Walter Orenstein of Emory University join us to discuss the status of a COVID-19 vaccine and the steps necessary to distribute an effective one. This podcast episode was funded by a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 


Colonialism and Empire:


Vaccine Hesitancy:


Understanding Vaccines:

  • Star Talk Radio: Vaccines – Let’s Make America Smart Again: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks vaccine science with American science journalist and author Laurie Garrett in this episode, Vaccines – Let’s Make America Smart Again. The episode title is a bit sassy, but there is a lot of good information inside. Laurie answers parents’ vaccination questions directly and patiently, and shares touching stories about near and dear ones she has lost to diseases that are now vaccine-preventable.
  • Doc Doc Goose: Measles, Myths, and Rumors: In this light-hearted podcast, a family medicine doctor (doc), a physical therapist (doc) and an architect (goose) help the general population understand healthcare topics. In the episode Measles, Myths, and Rumors, pediatrician Dr. Brian Liddell joins the group to answer questions about vaccines. The episode explores several aspects of vaccines to help parents gain a better knowledge of what they are and why the medical community uses them. 
  • Kids and Vaccines (Mayo Clinic Radio) A video of a podcast from Mayo Clinic Radio interviews Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse about childhood vaccination.
  • Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness: What is the Tea with Vaccines, Hunty? With Dr. Nina Shapiro (caution: strong language). Each week on Getting Curious, Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye fame interviews an expert guest on a topic he is curious about. In this episode, Jonathan talks vaccines, GMOs and more with Dr. Nina Shapiro, leading American physician and author of Hype: A Doctor's Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims, and Bad Advice - How to Tell What's Real and What's Not. Dr. Shapiro addresses common flu myths (9:40), gives a great explanation of how babies’ immune systems handle vaccines (12:15) and how doctors and the rest of us can approach people with vaccine concerns.


Smallpox Vaccine:

  • Futility ClosetThe Balmis Expedition: Using Orphans to Combat Smallpox: In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell how Spanish authorities found an ingenious way to use orphans to bring the smallpox vaccine to the American colonies in 1803. The Balmis Expedition overcame the problems of transporting a fragile vaccine over a long voyage and is credited with saving at least 100,000 lives in the New World. A blog post in Spanish is also available. 


         Countway Three Shield Logo   

Countway Library
10 Shattuck St, Boston MA 02115 | (617) 432-2136

Harvard Library | Privacy Policy | Harvard Digital Accessibility Policy
Copyright © 2020 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.