Aaron Ismach
Year of Discovery: 1960
The Eradication of Smallpox Through Worldwide Vaccination

Ismach's Jet Injector Lets Vaccinators Fly Through Their Work

In 1960 Aaron Ismach, a civilian in the U.S. Defense Department, improved the Jet Injector medical device which was used for quick mass vaccination of Smallpox and other diseases. The Jet injector was originally designed for a deeper, subcutaneous injection but Ismach modified it in 1962 to accomplish the more superficial smallpox vaccination. It was capable of vaccinating more than 1000 individuals an hour. To enable vaccinators to take the jet injector out into the field, Ismach developed the foot-powered injector called the "ped-o-jet," which was not dependent on electricity.

Smallpox, a viral infection with no treatment, was one of the greatest scourges of humankind. In the New World it decimated the Incas, the Aztecs, and the American Indians, killing as many as 95% of them. Even in the 20th century it slowly killed close to one third of the people it infected, coating their bodies with hard pustules. Those who survived were scarred for life. As late as the 1960s more than two million people a year died from it.

In 1967 the World Health Organization set out to eradicate smallpox from the world, believing that almost everyone on the planet would need to be vaccinated. Standard vaccination at the time consisted of scratching the vaccine into people's arms, which was not close to 100% effective. Ismach's ped-o-jet was nearly 100% effective and could vaccinate long lines of people quickly. It was crucial to the start of the smallpox eradication plan and was used throughout Western Africa. Bill Foege used it extensively and was able to take it into the field in Nigeria and prove that only 6% of a population had to be vaccinated to eradicate smallpox. Smallpox was eradicated in 1977. No one else will ever suffer from it.


Written by science writer, Billy Woodward

Lives Saved:  Over 122,000,000

Now the only smallpox known to exist in the world is stored in the high-security facilities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, and at the Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow. There is controversy over rather samples should be destroyed or kept for future research.

While there is danger of smallpox being stolen and used as a bioterrorist weapon, computer models of such a threat confirm Foege's surveillance and containment strategy. It is thought that any such use could be quickly halted by vaccinating in rings around an outbreak.

How Efficient was Ismacn's Ped-O-Jet?
Using the Ped-O-Jet  in Africa, William Foege (see his ScienceHero.com bio) kept track of his personal records. His quick fire vaccination record came the time he set up his vaccination kit in a prison in the Abakaliki area of Nigeria. Long lines of expressionless men shuffled through the sand, prodded by sticks to keep them moving. Foege vaccinated 600 men in just a bit over 20 minutes. Foege's one-day record, set on one very long day in Enugu in 1967, was 11,000 people vaccinated. 

ScienceHeroes.com Exclusives
Steve Ismach on Aaron Ismach, His Father
I never realized how smart Aaron Ismach, my dad, was until I entered college as a science major.  At barely 17 years old (I am an August baby who skipped 8th grade), I was enrolled at SUNY Stony Brook, in a calculus course.  Math always came very easy to me, at least until this point.  My instructor was from Harvard, and I mentioned to my dad on the phone that "I could follow him explicitly until he picked up the chalk."  

Dad asked me to send him a used copy of the textbook, and he knew I was returning home in two weeks.  I asked him why, and he said "maybe I can help you the weekends you come home."  I rolled my eyes to myself, but went to the bookstore and mailed him the book that day.
I returned home on a Friday evening and promptly at 8AM Saturday morning we began.  Dad was 50 years old that year, and I imagined he did not even see a calculus textbook for 25 or more years.  I had breezed through High School classes without ever asking dad for any help at all, so I really had no idea what to expect or any appreciation for how smart he was. 
We stopped working about 7PM that night, him fresh as a daisy and me a very wilted and exhausted college freshman.  My brain was fried, but dad just kept saying  "let's do one more problem to make sure you get it."  
Over dinner I asked him how he remembered calculus for that many years after he studied it. He answered:  "I do not remember it.  I understand it."  My dad had a notebook alongside the textbook, and to my utter amazement he had already done every problem in the textbook!!!!  I am not sure how long I stared at him, with my jaw dropped and my mouth wide open. Too bad there were no on-line classes then! 
That Saturday was the first of many Saturday sessions with my dad that year.  And I NEVER doubted his genius again.  To this day I believe he was the smartest man I have ever met, and certainly he was one of the funniest and kindest as well.  He always had a joke to make you laugh, a manner that put you at ease, and an unrelenting mind and work ethic to solve the most  difficult problems. 

Thanks to Louis Rubenstein for this fun anecdote
I worked at the US Army Medical Equipment Research and Development Laboratory, Fort Totten, Queens N.Y. from 1965 -1966. Aaron Ismach was the Chief Engineer; the Technical Director was Ben Pile.  Aaron commuted from Brooklyn with his friend Sol Chasen.  At that time he had developed versions of the jet injector, and portable respirator, and was working on a portable x-ray machine. He may have had several masters degrees in Engineering from the City College of NY. One of the stories about Aaron was that he once received a letter from Europe and the only address on it was Aaron Ismach, USA.  We did not know if he was that well known or someone in the Post Office assumed that USA meant the US Army.

Ben Franklin Lost his Son, Franky to Smallpox and Regretted Not Getting Him Innoculated
“In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

Vaccines are Ubiquitous & Omnipresent Throughout Our Lives
It is bizarre that vaccines are controversial, when virtually everyone has had vaccines. The average person born today may get 70+ vaccines in their lifetime. 

  • There are 31 childhood vaccines (counting booster shots). Over 90% of people have received some of these vaccines.

Virtually everyone constantly benefits from vaccines

  • Did you know that all beef, poultry, and pork you eat comes from vaccinated animals?
  • And that all horses, dogs, cats, and zoo animals are vaccinated?
  • Who wants to live in a world where you can’t pet your friends’ dog because it may not have been vaccinated, and may have rabies?

Links to More About the Scientist & the Science
Wikipedia entry about jet injectors created by Ismach