For centuries, smallpox was one of the most devastating killers on the planet. A contagious disease that affected rich and poor alike across the globe, by the 18th century it was responsible for the deaths of 10% of the British population, with that figure doubling in the crowded towns and cities.
In 1796, while working as a local physician in the small town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, Edward Jenner made the incredible discovery that would end this deadly plight, earning him the title ‘father of immunology’ in the West.
But who exactly was Jenner? And how did he make this world-altering discovery?
Edward Jenner was born on 17 May 1749 in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, a town in the southwest of England. The second youngest of nine children, his parents were Reverend Stephen Jenner, the town vicar, and Sarah Jenner.
As a youth, he received a strong basic education and is noted to have received inoculation for smallpox using the method of variolation. Variolation originated in China in at least the 15th century, before reaching Europe by the 18th. This method involved infecting healthy people with material from smallpox patients, in the hope that only a mild infection would result and the recipient would then be immune to the disease.
While this often achieved success, it could also cause the deaths of its patients. In 1783, Prince Octavius died following the procedure aged 4, to the agony of his father King George III.
A young surgeon
At the age of 14, Jenner was apprenticed to a surgeon named Daniel Ludlow, where he would gain valuable experience in becoming a surgeon himself.
In 1770, Jenner joined the ranks of St George’s Hospital in London at the age of 21, to train under distinguished surgeon John Hunter. Hunter was impressed by the young Jenner’s skills, and would reportedly tell him “Don’t think; try.”, a well known piece of advice in medical circles and a phrase which would aptly capture the character of the Age of Enlightenment.
Three years later, Jenner returned to his hometown of Berkeley to set up a practice as a family doctor and surgeon. He would keep in touch with his old mentor, John Hunter, who would later recommend him to the Royal Society.
A keen zoologist
In 1788, Jenner became a fellow of the prestigious Society following his publication on the misunderstood life of the nested cuckoo. His impressive study meticulously combined observation, experiment and dissection.
It would be Jenner’s keen interest in zoology coupled with his expertise in human anatomy that would ultimately lead him to his greatest discovery.
The smallpox vaccination
Amongst Britain’s rural communities, it was a noted observation that milkmaids were generally immune to smallpox. This country lore intrigued Jenner.
He proposed that if the milkmaids caught cowpox, which belonged to the same family as smallpox yet was significantly less dangerous, it would also protected them from the latter more deadly disease.
To test his theory, on 14 May 1796 Jenner inoculated an eight year old boy named James Phipps with pus from the blisters of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid with cowpox.
The boy experienced a fever and some uneasiness, but no serious infection. Later, he was injected with matter from a smallpox patient, suffering no side effects. Though James had been inoculated using cowpox, which had been tried before, Jenner had proved that he was now immune to smallpox. He had also shown that cowpox pus could be inoculated from person to person, not just from cattle.
Recording his findings
Jenner successfully tested his hypothesis on 23 more people, including his 11-month old son Robert, prompting him to present his findings to the Royal Society. The familiar words vaccine and vaccination derive from the term Variolae vaccinae (‘smallpox of the cow’), first used by Jenner in this report.
After revisions and further investigations, his incredible findings were accepted. Yet all were not so welcoming. Jenner received pushback from members of the medical community who profited from variolation, while the public became fearful of using matter from cows in vaccination.
He continued to promote his methods however, providing free vaccination from a one-room hut in the garden of his home in Berkeley, which he called the “Temple of Vaccinia”. This hut is considered to be “the birth-place of public health”.
Despite these initial shortcomings, news of Jenner’s discovery soon spread around Europe. Labelling himself “the Vaccine Clerk to the World”, he spent the rest of his life supplying cowpox material to medical practitioners across the globe, as cowpox did not occur widely.
A strong supporter of vaccination, Napoleon inoculated all his French troops and even awarded Jenner a medal for his work. At the great physician’s request, and despite being at war with Britain, Napoleon also released two British prisoners of war and allowed them to return home, apparently remarking “Ah, Jenner, I can refuse him nothing.”
As Jenner’s work had prevented him from earning a living as a practitioner, he was compensated well for his research, and in 1821 was appointed physician to King George IV. On 26 January 1826, after devoting his life to the pursuit of science and vaccination, Jenner died of an apparent stroke aged 73.
By 1840, the British government had banned variolation and provided Jenner’s vaccination free of charge. By 1980, WHO declared smallpox eradicated, in one of the greatest victories of man over nature.
Jenner himself had predicted this outcome in 1801, stating of his vaccinations: “the annihilation of smallpox—the most dreadful scourge of the human race—will be the final result of this practice”. He was proved right, and today his work is thought to have saved more lives than any other in history.