Looking back on our vaccination history

More than 65 million intramuscular injections of three approved COVID-19 vaccines have been given in the UK. Each of these injections will have used disposable plastic syringes and needles to dilute the vaccines and inject them into patients. A huge achievement, but where did all this start?

Syringes have been used since the time of Hippocrates (460–370BCE), in the form of animal bladders attached to pipes for irrigating wounds or to give’ clysters (enemas). Hero of Alexandria, who lived at the time of Ptolemy VIII (about 100BCE)  is said to have invented a syringe in the form of a piston attached to a fine tube. The Arab physician and surgeon Albucasis (936–1013CE) devised a syringe and plunger made from silver or ivory, with a pipe to insert into the urethra.

English physician William Harvey’s research into the action of the heart and the circulation of the blood was published in 1628; it stimulated interest in research into injections and infusions. The first intravenous injection in 1656 was by Christopher Wren during his time at the University of Oxford. He injected wine, ale, opium and scammony (a herbal purgative) into the superficial vein of the leg of a dog, using a goose quill and an animal bladder. In 1661, the German physician Johann Elsholtz used a syringe to inject opium into a dog, and then later injected three soldiers from the bodyguard of the Elector of Brandenburg.

In 1853, the French veterinarian Charles Gabriel Pravaz described a special syringe with a screw mechanism to standardise the dose. In 1855, the Scottish physician Alexander Wood used a glass syringe to give local injections of an opium solution to treat neuralgia. Charles Hunter, a surgeon at St George’s Hospital, refined Wood’s design in the 1860s by inventing a locking mechanism to secure the needle and used a pointed needle with a lateral opening. The Luer all-glass syringe was developed in 1896, and the Luer-Lok to fix the needle in 1925. Charles Rothauser was the Australian inventor of the plastic disposable syringe — first made in polyethylene and then, in 1951, injection-moulded from polypropylene.

Early syringe needles were made from carbon steel, but these could rust and break. Researchers at the Sheffield steel manufacturers Brown Firth developed 18/8 stainless steel in 1924 and this was used to manufacture needles. These could be sharpened for re-use.

Anthony Cartwright, retired pharmacist and author of A History of the Medicines We Take

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, June 2021, Vol 306, No 7950;306(7950)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2021.1.87715