“Mankind can never forget that you have lived.”
Thomas Jefferson to Edward Jenner
Edward Jenner was born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire in 1749. By the time of his death in 1823 he had received international recognition as the pioneer of vaccination against smallpox; a discovery that continues to save lives today.
As a child, Jenner was fascinated by the world around him, exploring the countryside and collecting fossils. He trained as a surgeon, first in Chipping Sodbury and then at St George’s Hospital in London where he worked with the renowned John Hunter. In 1772 he returned to Berkeley to set up practice. Alongside his work as a country doctor, Jenner had a wide range of interests and made remarkable discoveries in the fields of medicine and natural science, including his work on the nesting habits of cuckoos for which he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He also carried out early trials with unmanned balloons and was an accomplished musician and poet. However, the solution to one issue continued to elude Jenner.
Jenner had spent much of his life fascinated by the country lore that stated someone who had contracted the disease cowpox would be protected against smallpox, one of the most horrific diseases of the time. In 1796, Jenner was visited by Sarah Nelmes, a dairymaid, to ask about a rash on her hand. Diagnosing cowpox, Jenner saw an opportunity to test out his theory and inoculated James Phipps, aged eight, the son of his gardener, with cowpox. Phipps became ill with cowpox, but made a quick recovery. Jenner had proved that cowpox could be passed from person to person. Jenner then variolated Phipps, a well-established practice of inoculation with smallpox, however Phipps did not contract the disease. Jenner then carried out further experiments, proving that cowpox did indeed produce immunity from smallpox.
In 1798, Jenner published the results of his work: An inquiry into the causes and effects of the variolae vaccinae: a disease discovered in some of the western counties of England, particularly Gloucestershire, and known by the name of the cow pox. It was an instant success and news of this practice of vaccination, after the Latin ‘vacca’ for cow, soon spread around the world. Vaccination was not without its opponents, however, and Jenner dedicated much of the rest of his life to telling people how to vaccinate safely and effectively.
Less than 200 years later, in 1980, the World Health Assembly declared that smallpox had been eradicated: the first and only human disease to have been completely wiped out. Now no one need fear smallpox, thanks to the work of Jenner. More than this, Jenner’s achievements set a course for the development of further vaccines. Vaccination now averts an estimated 2-3 million deaths every single year. What a remarkable legacy!