This Week In History: May 14th – 20th


This week in history: Smallpox meets its match, Brown v. BOE is decided, and Anne Boleyn loses her head. Read more below and dive deeper with The Great Courses Plus.

May 14, 1796 – Smallpox Vaccine First Administered

It was on this day in 1796 that Edward Jenner would administer the first smallpox vaccination in Berkeley, Gloucestershire England. Prior to the development of the vaccine, smallpox was a deadly virus that ravaged many communities across the globe, killing up to 35% of the infected population during an outbreak. Jenner, who was a country doctor, observed that farmers who contracted cowpox didn’t appear to also catch smallpox. He took a sampling of the cowpox virus from a local milkmaid and then inoculated the son of his gardener with the material. Two months later, when he injected the boy with smallpox there was no effect, proving his hypothesis.

Learn more about how our bodies fight disease in Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes, and Their Real-World Applications 

May 17, 1954 – Brown v. the Board of Education Ruling

A major victory for the Civil Rights Movement, the US Supreme Court handed down the decision that racial segregation in schools was no longer Constitutional on this day in 1954. This unanimous decision overturned the ruling of the earlier 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which allowed state-sponsored segregation in public education. The decision did not provide a method of desegregating schools, however, resulting in many states attempting to legally slow or obstruct the decision. A second ruling entitled Brown II stated that the schools should desegregate with “all deliberate speed,” but it would not be until the 1969 case Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education that all schools would be forced to desegregate entirely.

Learn more about this and other historic Supreme Court cases in History of the Supreme Court

May 19, 1536 – Anne Boleyn is Beheaded

Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury Collection

The second wife of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn would be beheaded on this day in 1536. Though Anne had given birth to their daughter Elizabeth I three years prior, she had failed to produce Henry a male heir; frustrated with this, he sought ways to remove Anne and pave a clear path for him to marry his newest paramour, Jane Seymour. Divorce at this time was still illegal under Catholic doctrine, so on May 2nd, Anne would be arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London on accusations of incest, adultery, and high treason. She would be falsely convicted of these charges on May 15th by a jury of peers, and beheaded four days later.

Learn more about Henry VIII and the Tudor Dynasty in A History of England: From the Tudors to the Stuarts