Known as the “Inventor of Smallpox Vaccine” and the “Father of Immunology”, this man’s work is said to have "saved more lives than the work of any other human".
This is quite a claim, so who was this extraordinary man?
He came from humble but educated origins. Edward Jenner was born in the Gloucestershire village of Berkeley, on 17th May 1749. He was the eighth of nine children born to the vicar of Berkeley, the Reverend Stephen Jenner, and his wife Sarah. The family lived in the old St Mary’s Church vicarage.
Unfortunately, by the time Edward was five years old both his parents had died and he was left in the care of his older sister, Mary, who was soon to marry the incoming vicar, the Reverend G.C. Black. This meant that the family still had somewhere to live.
Edward was a typical country boy, energetic, curious, observant and very intelligent. He was interested in all manner of country matters and the natural sciences. He didn’t just ask ‘why’ and ‘how’, but conducted his own little experiments to get the answers.
He collected birds' eggs, and visited the shores of the River Severn near Berkeley, to collect fossils and anything of interest that might have been washed ashore. He went to school at nearby Wotton-under-Edge and then graduated to Cirencester Grammar School.
While at Wotton he had his first brush with smallpox. He underwent variolation, which was a high risk inoculation with the smallpox virus against natural infection. This experience obviously triggered in the curious boy an interest in medicine.
At the age of 14 Edward was apprenticed for seven years to Mr Daniel Ludlow, a Barber/Surgeon of Chipping Sodbury. Here he gained most of the experience needed to become a country doctor.
Dr John Hunter
Not content to be just a country doctor, young Edward Jenner
made the trip to London
in 1770 to complete his studies at St. George's Hospital and become a surgeon. He studied under the great surgeon and experimentalist, John Hunter who passed on to him a valuable piece of advice - "Don't think; try."
Hunter quickly recognised Edward's abilities at dissection and investigation, as well as his understanding of plant and animal anatomy. The two men remained lifelong friends and correspondents with a mutual interest in natural history. Hunter proposed Jenner for membership of the Royal Society in 1788.
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Return to Berkeley
In 1772 at the age of 23 Edward Jenner
returned to Berkeley
and established himself as the local doctor and surgeon. Although in later years he also established medical practices in London
and Cheltenham, Berkeley
was always his main home.
In 1785, Edward Jenner
bought a house close to the old vicarage in which he had been born. The Chantry in Church Lane at Berkeley
is his house and now a Museum Web: Dr Jenner's House & Garden
Edward married his wife Catherine Kingscote in 1788, when he was 39 and she 27. They had three children: Edward (1789), Catherine (1794) and Robert Fitzhardinge (1797).
Sadly, his family life was marred with tragedy. His eldest son Edward died of tuberculosis in 1810 aged 21; then five years later his wife died from the same disease. His daughter Catherine married but her father died before she produced a grandson. His youngest son, Robert never married.
Life as a Doctor
On a daily basis Dr Edward Jenner faced a vast array of medical cases. Patients would consult him at his home but he would also make home visits on horseback, sometimes riding great distances in bad weather. On one occasion he almost lost his life when visiting a patient at Kingscote, ten miles (16 km) from home, during a blizzard.
Amazingly, he visited patients over an area of about 400 square miles (1,036 sq km), from Gloucester
in the north to Bristol
in the south. His medical practice did not abandon those too poor to pay for treatment - he cared for them for free. In fact, some people claim that he started the first public health facility.
Although the 18th century was an Age of Enlightenment , many every day ideas and practices had no scientific foundation, particularly in medicine. For example, almost all illnesses and injuries would be treated by bloodletting either by cutting veins or applying leeches to the patient to suck out the ‘evil’ blood.
Jenner was also a practising surgeon, proficient in the art of bloodletting and the rapid amputation of gangrenous limbs without anaesthetics. The operation that Jenner performed most frequently was 'cutting for the stone' - the removal of kidney stones.
Although Jenner's friend Humphry Davy had suggested in 1800 that the gas nitrous oxide could be used to relieve pain, the use of anaesthetics did not enter routine medical practice until the 1840s (after Jenner’s death).
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In the 18th century smallpox was the most feared and greatest killer of its time. It killed 10% of the population, rising to 20% in towns and cities where infection spread easily. Among children, it accounted for one in three of all deaths. Jenner called it the Speckled Monster.
Edward Jenner was living during an incredibly exciting time in medicine. Tracheotomy (the insertion of an artificial windpipe to relieve obstruction in the throat) had been introduced into surgery in 1730. It was a vital development in the relief of the effects of diphtheria.
Appendicitis could be diagnosed and corrected surgically after 1736, and the introduction of the stethoscope in 1816 opened the way to a better understanding of the mechanics of the heart and lungs.
Amazingly, the value of measuring body temperature was not known and demonstrated until 1815, although Jenner himself was aware of temperature changes in animals and owned a precious thermometer. His close friend, John Hunter, had given this to him. When he unfortunately broke the thermometer one day while using it, Hunter sent him another one with a stern letter about not being so clumsy!
It was an exciting time and Edward joined with others to form Medical Societies in Gloucestershire and Bristol
where papers on medical subjects were read and discussed. Jenner contributed papers on angina pectoris, ophthalmia, and cardiac valvular disease and commented on cowpox.
In 1765, Dr John Fewster had published a paper in the London
Medical Society entitled "Cow pox and its ability to prevent smallpox", but he did not pursue the subject further. It was not until Jenner's work some 25 years later that the vaccination procedure became widely understood.
Cowpox was an infectious viral skin disease suffered by cows. It affected their udders and would infect the milkmaids’ hands, causing pus filled blisters. Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had caught cowpox did not succumb to smallpox during an epidemic. He believed that the cowpox had protected them and that it would be possible to provide everyone with this protection by inoculating them with cowpox pus. In the spirit of the times, Edward Jenner “Didn’t think, but tried”!
James Phipps and ‘Blossom’
On 14 May 1796, Jenner tested his hypothesis by inoculating James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy who was the son of his gardener. He scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom, and inoculated Phipps in both arms the same day.
This event subsequently produced in Phipps a fever and some uneasiness, but no full-blown infection. Later, he injected Phipps with variolous material, the routine method of immunization at that time. No disease followed. The boy was later challenged with variolous material and again showed no sign of infection.
The humble cow Blossom has gone down in history. Her horns are on display in the Jenner House and Garden Museum
and her hide now hangs on the wall of the St George's medical school library in Tooting (London
Edward Jenner’s great achievement was to prove that inoculation with cowpox did provide immunity to smallpox. Moreover, he demonstrated that the protective cowpox pus could be effectively inoculated from person to person, not just directly from cattle. He successfully tested his hypothesis on 23 additional subjects.
Jenner continued his research and reported it to the Royal Society, which did not publish the initial paper. After revisions and further investigations, he published his findings on the 23 cases in 1798.
Some of his conclusions were correct, some erroneous; nevertheless he became world famous following the publication of his ‘Inquiry’. The medical establishment, cautious then as now, deliberated at length over his findings before accepting them. Eventually, vaccination was accepted and variolation (of or relating to smallpox) discontinued.
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Consequences of his Discovery
As use of his treatment spread, Jenner found that he had to spend more and more of his time answering correspondence about it. He called himself 'Vaccine Clerk to the World'. He continued to advise on and research the safest ways to produce and transport his cowpox vaccine.
The word “vaccination,” coined by Jenner in 1796 is derived from the Latin root vaccinus, meaning of or from the cow. Once vaccinated, a patient develops antibodies that make him/her immune to cowpox, but they also develop immunity to the smallpox virus.
The cowpox vaccinations and later incarnations proved so successful that in 1980, the World Health Organization announced that smallpox was the first disease to be eradicated by vaccination efforts worldwide.
It would seem that the claim this article stated with has been substantiated.
With so much time being taken up with work on the vaccine, Jenner’s ordinary medical practice was no longer able to provide him with an adequate living.
In 1802, supported by his colleagues and the King, he petitioned Parliament and was granted £10,000 for his work on vaccination. In 1807, he was granted another £20,000 for his continuing work in microbiology.
in 1803, he became involved with the Jennerian Institution, a society concerned with promoting vaccination to eradicate smallpox. In 1808, with government aid, this society became the National Vaccine Establishment. Jenner became a member of the Medical and Chirurgical Society on its founding in 1805 and presented a number of papers there. The society is now the Royal Society of Medicine.
He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1802. In 1806, Jenner was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
In 1821, he was appointed Physician Extraordinary to King George IV, a great national honour, and was also made Mayor of Berkeley and Justice of the Peace.
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Other Interests & Achievements
Edward Jenner loved music and played the flute in a local music society. He was also a promising violinist. He was an accomplished wordsmith and wrote several delightful poems using the world around him for inspiration. He also wrote ditties and limericks about his colleagues and his medical experiences.
Edward Jenner’s Balloon
Edward’s wide circle of friends included many famous scientists and inventors. When the first hydrogen filled balloon was launched in 1783 Edward became fascinated with the concept of flight.
The first flight of an unmanned balloon in the West Country was probably carried out by Edward’s lifelong friend, physician Caleb Hillier Parry. Parry launched a hydrogen balloon from the Crescent in Bath
on 10th January 1784. Made of varnished silk, it was 17feet (5.2 metres) in diameter and 8.5eeft (2.6 mettres) high. It flew 19 miles (30.6 km), landing just west of Wells
Determined to try the experiment for himself, Edward Jenner
wrote to Parry requesting a length of silk and urging him to join him in Berkeley
. Jenner launched his hydrogen balloon from the courtyard of Berkeley Castle
at 2pm on 2nd September 1784. It flew 10 miles (16 km) north eastwards, landing in a field at Kingscote, where, the Gloucester
Journal newspaper reported, it terrified the reapers so much that for some time they could not be persuaded to approach it!
The balloon was re-launched and drifted north along the line of the hills for a further 14 miles (22.5 km). Its journey ended a few miles east of Gloucester
at the beauty spot known as Birdlip. The local pub, known since the 1820s as the Balloon Inn and now called ‘The Air Balloon’, may well commemorate this exciting event.
Despite being involved in so many different activities, Edward still had time to pursue his interest in birds and their habits. He was particularly interested in the behaviour of the Common Cuckoo.
Prior to his landmark study, it was believed that adult cuckoos took over nests belonging to other birds and killed the occupants by tossing out the eggs and hatchlings before laying their own egg.
Edward was able to disprove this theory by careful observation, experiment, and dissection. He discovered that the newborn cuckoo had a special hollow in its back to help it manoeuvre the other egs and chicks out of the nest. Amazingly, once this feat was achieved the hollow filled in and the host parents continued to feed the hungry chick just as if it was their own.
Jenner’s findings were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1788 and he was immediately elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
His description of the newly hatched cuckoo, pushing its host's eggs and fledgling chicks out of the nest was only confirmed in the 20th century, when photography became available.
In the 18th century it was believed that during winter, birds hibernated in the river mud and did not reappear until Spring. Edward Jenner did not believe this because he noticed that the birds were neither muddy nor thin when they reappeard in springtime. He believed they flew south to warmer climes and asked his good friend Joseph Banks to confirm this on his Pacific voyages with Captain Cook.
In the last year of his life, Jenner presented his "Observations on the Migration of Birds" to the Royal Society.
In 1802, Edward became a Master Mason in the Lodge of Faith and Friendship #449, and from 1812-1813, he served as Worshipful Master of Royal Berkeley Lodge of Faith and Friendship.
Following his wife’s death, Edward became very depressed. To ease his depression he returned to his old interests of fossil-collecting and developing his garden. The latest varieties always attracted him. He imported vegetable seeds from Italy and Spain. He became expert at propagating fruit bushes such as gooseberries, raspberries and figs.
In 1818 he introduced young grapevines from the famous stock at Hampton Court and grew them in a specially constructed hot house at the rear of The Chantry.
Edward Jenner’s Death
On a cold January day in 1823 Jenner did not appear for breakfast. He was found unconscious. Jenner's nephew Henry bled him several times, without effect. He never regained consciousness, and passed away quietly just after two o'clock on the following morning, 26 January 1823.
In modern parlance, Dr Edward Jenner died on 26 January 1823 from a stroke, aged 73.
The funeral was a local affair, with no one attending from London. Fittingly, James Phipps, who as a child had been the recipient of the first vaccination in 1796, was a pall-bearer. Edward was laid to rest in the family tomb next to his parents, eldest son and wife Catherine.
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