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Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Edward Jenner

Smallpox was a scourge of the eighteenth century, killing in Europe alone sixty million and all but five percent of those who survived suffered facial pockmark scarring.

As a young child Edward Jenner (1749 - 1823) was inoculated against smallpox by the commonly used practice of variolation.

In 1770 Jenner became the house pupil of the eminent surgeon and dentist John Hunter whose inquiring mind and interest in experimentation was to be of a great influence on the young medical student.

Edward Jenner (1749-1823), Discoverer of vaccination.

Later Jenner became a Gloucestershire country doctor and amongst his patients, he encountered a young milkmaid who asserted that she could not contract smallpox because she had already been infected with cowpox as a result of milking cowpox-infected cows. The milkmaid was guided by a local old wives tale that the mild disease of cowpox conferred immunity from smallpox upon humans.

After investigating the milkmaid's belief, Jenner found that there were two forms of cowpox and one of them, which was a modified form of smallpox did indeed provide immunity against the disease.

Jenner decided to test his theory. On May 14, 1796 he took some pus from a cowpox blister on the fingers of a farmer's daughter, Sarah Nelmes and scratched it with a lancet into the skin of the left arm of an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps, who at first showed signs of a light fever but quickly recovered.  Two months later he exposed the child to smallpox, but the boy did not get the disease.

Edward Jenner Advising a Farmer to Vaccinate His Family. Oil painting by an English painter, c. 1910.

In 1798 Jenner published a paper explaining his work. He named the process in which he used the cowpox sore, vaccination, which came from the Latin vaccinus, meaning "from cows." The medical authorities scoffed at his theory so Jenner went to London to show his findings. However he couldn't find any volunteers willing to submit to vaccination. The demoralized Jenner returned to Gloucestershire and it was only after a successful vaccination by a London doctor that the medical world was persuaded that inoculation worked.

By 1800 Benjamin Waterhouse had become the first American physician to use the smallpox vaccine. However the church objected in no certain terms as it was argued vaccination took away the power of life and death from God.

Edward Jenner was found in a state of apoplexy on January 25, 1823, with his right side paralysed. He never fully recovered and eventually died of an apparent stroke, his second, on January 26, 1823, aged 73. 

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