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Myths and Legends
Edward Jenner's first vaccination experiment was on James Phipps (8!)
Edward Jenner's first vaccination experiment was on James Phipps (8!)

© Mary Evans Picture Library
From myth to legend

Smallpox in the 18th and 19th Century

Known by Jenner as the "Speckled Monster" smallpox was the biggest killer of it's time. Affecting all sectors of society in the 18th Century, figures provided by the Jenner Museum show that, around 10% of the population would die from it and a further 20% would end up scarred, encouraging fashions of beauty spots and veils amongst the wealthy.

The disease is thought to have existed since Egyptian times, and smallpox scars are allegedly visible on the mummified body of Pharaoh Rameses V, who died in 1157BC. From the 16th Century smallpox became extremely common in Europe, killing large numbers of people.
Woman with smallpox
Smallpox and its disfiguring effect
From the 1700s onwards, with the advent of industrialisation and urbanisation, people lived in more cramped and unhygienic conditions, which allowed the virus, known as variola, to wipe out large swathes of the population; in 1844, in London, 8048 people died, according to medical records.

Smallpox was also used as a biological weapon by the British. In 1763, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in North America, wrote to Colonel Henry Bouquet: "Could it not be contrived to send smallpox among these disaffected tribes of Indians?" they did and it decimated the Native American population.

As no cure could be, nor has ever been found, people searched for ways to prevent them from contracting the disease. In 1721, a method of vaccination was brought to England, by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British Ambassador to Turkey. Her method, picked up from the women in the court in Turkey, involved scratching the vein of a healthy person and pressing a small amount of matter, taken from a smallpox pustule of a person with a mild attack, into the wound.

This process was popular because of its minor successes and became known as variolation.
Smallpox virus cell
Smallpox virus cell - microscopic demon
Edward Jenner himself, as a boy, was treated in this manor, an incident which remained in his memory for life. In line with medical practices at the time he was prepared prior to the treatment; this involved being starved and bled, a practice which involved relieving the patient of up to several pints of their blood to purify them, before being infected with the disease. He was then locked up with a number of other boys until the illness had run its course.


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