Edward Jenner (1749-1823)
Find out all about the county doctor famous for his invention of vaccination against smallpox.
Edward Jenner was a country doctor born at the start of the Industrial Revolution in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. He is one of the few local heroes to gain fame for his great services to the world of medicine.
Jenner was the youngest of nine children born to the vicar of Berkeley, the Reverend Stephen Jenner, and his wife Sarah. Edward was only five when he lost both his parents. He was taken care of by his older brother, Stephen, who also educated him until the age of eight.
From a young age Jenner was fascinated by his natural surroundings and would collect dormice nests, bird’s eggs and fossils at the shore of the River Severn. Realising this passion for natural history, his brother encouraged him to train as a surgeon.
Despite rapid advances in scientific discoveries during the eighteenth century, killer diseases such as smallpox were still claiming the lives of millions worldwide.
Smallpox is caused by the virus variola. It enters the body through the lungs and is carried in the blood. It infects internal organs and also spreads to the skin causing a rash. There is no actual treatment for smallpox but a vaccine can help protect against it.
During the eighteenth century a method known as variolation was widely popular. This involved inserting pus taken from smallpox of a victim into the skin of a healthy person to provide immunity against it.
There was a folk belief that milkmaids who often suffered from cowpox could not catch smallpox. This inspired him to carry out careful observations to determine whether there was a connection between the two diseases. He was convinced that infection with cowpox gave immunity to smallpox.
On 14 May 1796, his put his theory to the test by inoculating an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, with material removed from the blister of a milkmaid called Sarah Nelmes. She had contracted cowpox from a cow called Blossom. The boy developed cowpox and suffered from a mild fever.
When he recovered Jenner inoculated him with smallpox, which produced no effect. He inoculated the boy for a second time but there were no signs of infection. He also experimented on several other children and the results were positive. A report on his findings was first published in 1798.
Jenner was the first to use the word ‘vaccine’ which he derived from the Latin word, vacca, meaning ‘cow’. At first, he had to contend with much criticism and ridicule but the effectiveness of vaccination soon gained worldwide recognition. He received gifts from the King of Germany and the Empress of Russia and was also awarded an honorary Doctorate of Medicine by Oxford University.
In 1815 Jenner's wife, who bore him three children, died from tuberculosis. He never recovered from the grief caused by her death and died shortly after suffering a second stroke on 26 January 1823.
He was buried next to his wife in Berkeley Church.
last updated: 08/04/2008 at 09:48