Edward Jenner (May 17, 1749 - January 26, 1823) was an English country doctor
practicing in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England, famous for his work introducing
the Smallpox vaccine.
Edward Jenner is alongside the likes of Joseph Lister, Robert Koch
and Louis Pasteur in medical history. Edward Jenner’s great gift
to the world was his vaccination for smallpox. This disease was greatly
feared at the time as it killed one in three of those who caught it
and badly disfigured those who were lucky enough to survive catching
Edward Jenner was a country doctor who had studied nature and his
natural surroundings since childhood. He had always been fascinated
by the rural old wives tale that milkmaids could not get smallpox.
He believed that there was a connection between the fact that milkmaids
only got a weak version of smallpox – the non-life threatening
cowpox – but did not get smallpox itself. A milkmaid who caught
cowpox got blisters on her hands and Jenner concluded that it must
be the pus in the blisters that somehow protected the milkmaids.
In 1796, Jenner decided to try out a theory he had developed. A young
boy called James Phipps would be his guinea pig. He took some pus from
cowpox blisters found on the hand of a milkmaid called Sarah. She had
milked a cow called Blossom and had developed the tell-tale blisters.
Jenner ‘injected’ some of the pus into James. This process
he repeated over a number of days gradually increasing the amount of
pus he put into the boy. He then deliberately injected Phipps with
smallpox. James became ill but after a few days made a full recovery
with no side effects. It seemed that Jenner had made a brilliant discovery.
He then encountered the prejudices and conservatism of the medical
world that dominated London. They could not accept that a country doctor
had made such an important discovery and Jenner was publicly humiliated
when he brought his findings to London. However, what he had discovered
could not be denied and eventually his discovery had to be accepted – a
discovery that was to change the world. So successful was Jenner's
discovery, that in 1840 the government of the day banned any other
treatment for smallpox other than Jenner's.
Jenner did not patent his discovery as it would have made the vaccination
more expensive and out of the reach of many. It was his gift to the
world. A small museum now exists in his home town. It was felt that
this was appropriate for a man who shunned the limelight and London.
In the museum are the horns of Blossom the cow. The word vaccination
comes from the Latin ‘vacca’ which means cow – in
honour of the part played by Blossom and Sarah in Jenner’s research.
A more formal statue of Jenner is tucked away in one of the more quiet
areas of Hyde Park in London.
As a young man, Jenner also wrote about what he had seen cuckoos doing.
His were the first written records to describe a baby cuckoo pushing
the eggs and the young of its host out of the nest so that the baby
cuckoo was the only one to receive food from its foster parents. This
was only confirmed many years later but it stands as a testament to
the importance of the countryside for Jenner. If he had gone to a city
to further his career, would he had been in the right environment to
make his famous discovery? In 1980, the World Health Organisation declared
that smallpox was extinct throughout the world.
This biography is courtesy of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia