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Edward Jenner (1749-1823)

Edward Jenner was an English country doctor who introduced the vaccine for smallpox. Previously a keen practitioner of smallpox inoculation, Jenner took the principle a stage further by inducing immunity against this killer disease via exposure to a harmless related disease, cowpox. His technique provided safer and more reliable protection than traditional inoculation.

Working in an agricultural community, Jenner knew of the country folklore that milkmaids never caught smallpox. They were known for their relatively flawless complexions, which were unmarked by smallpox scarring. However, they inevitably caught cowpox through their close work with cows. Jenner speculated that a bout of cowpox produced immunity against smallpox and even encountered locals who claimed to have deliberately infected themselves to provoke such a response. As a forward-thinking doctor who liked to experiment, Jenner wanted to prove his theory. In 1796 he inserted pus taken from Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid with cowpox, into a cut made in the arm of a local boy, James Phipps. Several days later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox. He was found to be immune.

Jenner called his new method ‘vaccination’ after the Latin word for cow (vacca). But Jenner had no explanation for why this method worked - no-one could see the virus with the microscopes of the time. He submitted a paper to the Royal Society the following year. It was met with some interest but further proof was requested. Jenner proceeded to vaccinate and monitor several more children, including his own son. The full results of his study were published in 1798, but his apparent discovery was met with much opposition, and even ridicule. In time the value of his vaccine was recognised, but as many poorer communities had limited access to medical treatment it was several decades before its full benefits were realised. In 1853, 30 years after Jenner’s death, smallpox vaccination was made compulsory in England and Wales.

Bibliography

H Bazin, The Eradication of Smallpox: Edward Jenner and The First and Only Eradication of a Human Infectious Disease (London: Academic Press, 2001)

H Davies, 'Ethical reflections on Edward Jenner's experimental treatment’, Journal of Medical Ethics, 33 (2007), pp 174-176

R B Fisher, Edward Jenner (1749-1823) (London: Andre Deutsch, 1991)

E Jenner, An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Known by the Name of Cow Pox (London: Sampson Low, 1798)

Glossary:

Immunity

The condition of being immune, the protection against infectious disease conferred either by the immune response generated by immunisation or previous infection or by other nonimmunologic factors.

Cowpox

Viral infection of cows' udders, transmitted to humans by direct contact, causing very mild symptoms similar to smallpox.