• Why is Jenner famous?

    What Edward Jenner did
    Jenner was the first doctor to vaccinate people against smallpox. Smallpox was a dangerous disease. Jenner found a way to prevent people catching smallpox so fewer people got ill, and the disease became rare. Today smallpox has died out.

    When did Jenner live?
    Jenner was born in 1749. That was in the middle of the 18th century. He lived through exciting times, with the first balloon flights and new machines such as steam engines. But Jenner was happy to work as a country doctor in the west of England. He died in 1823.

    Why we remember Jenner
    Today, we are safe from smallpox, thanks to Edward Jenner. A disease that once killed thousands of people every year was beaten, thanks to his work. Some people laughed at his ideas, but Jenner was not put off. And people all over the world are grateful for what he did.

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  • Jenner's early life

    Jenner's family
    Jenner was born in Berkeley, in Gloucestershire. His father was vicar of the village church. But Mr Jenner died when Edward was only 5. He was looked after by his mother, and by his brothers and sisters.

    Edward went to school when he was 8. He was lucky. Poor children did not get the chance to go to school. Edward was interested in nature. He loved to wander in the fields, looking at plants and animals. He liked to collect fossils too.

    Training to be a doctor
    Edward wanted to be a doctor. At 15, he went to work for a country surgeon. He helped with operations and prepared medicines. In 1770, he went to London to study medicine. His teacher was a famous surgeon named John Hunter.

    Wonders from the South Pacific
    Edward was a keen scientist. One day he was asked to look at specimens of animals and plants brought back from the South Pacific by the explorer Captain James Cook. It was exciting to study wildlife never before seen in Britain.

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  • The country doctor

    Jenner the doctor
    After Jenner became a doctor in 1772, he went back to Berkeley. He rode out on his horse to visit sick people. He always wore a blue coat. He liked to ask people questions, about wild birds and animals, and about medicines they made from wild plants.

    Home life
    In 1788 Jenner married Catherine Kingscote. At home, he relaxed playing the violin and the flute. He spent a lot of time outdoors. He was a naturalist, and especially wanted to understand why cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests!

    People worried about diseases. One of the most feared diseases was smallpox. 2,000 people in London died of smallpox every year. Smallpox had been around since the time of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. It was horrible.

    People with smallpox got spots filled with pus. Many people died of smallpox. Mostly it was children who died. If you didn't die, you were left with nasty sores on your face. These were 'pock-marks'. Smallpox also made some people blind.

    What the dairymaid said
    One day, Jenner met a dairymaid. 'I never worry about catching smallpox' she told him, 'for I have had cowpox'. Cowpox was a disease passed from cows to people. It was a mild sickness. No-one died from it. Dairymaids working with cows got cowpox easily - but not smallpox.

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  • Jenner's experiments

    Giving people germs
    Jenner knew about inoculation. Giving people a mild dose of a disease could protect them from getting the disease badly. If you got smallpox in a mild form, and got better, you wouldn't catch it again.

    Inoculation had come to Britain early in the 1700s. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an English traveller, saw inoculation in Turkey. She told doctors in England how it was done. Doctors tried it without knowing much about germs. Inoculation worked sometimes. But other people were inoculated, got smallpox badly, and died.

    Jenner's first experiment
    Jenner decided to experiment with cowpox. He asked a dairymaid named Sarah Nelmes to help. Sarah had had cowpox. She'd caught it from a cow named Blossom. Jenner took a little cowpox pus from sores on her arm.

    Then he made a small cut on the skin of an 8-year-old boy, James Phipps. He smeared the pus into the cut. This was the first vaccination.

    What happened to James Phipps?
    James Phipps caught cowpox. Eight weeks later, Jenner gave James a mild dose of smallpox, by inoculation. He waited to see if James got sick.

    James was fine. He did not catch smallpox. The vaccination of cowpox had protected him.

    The new vaccine
    Jenner tried the same experiment on other children. He tried it on his baby son. They were all fine. His 'vaccine' (a word he invented) worked!

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  • Jenner becomes famous

    The world's most famous doctor
    Jenner wrote a book about his discovery. Vaccination was tried at St Thomas' Hospital in London. Doctors all over the world were interested, and Jenner sent them samples of vaccine.

    Jenner was the most famous doctor in the world. Kings and emperors sent him presents. He was given money by the British Parliament, as a thank you for his work.

    Treating everyone
    Jenner became a rich man, but lived quietly at home in Berkeley.

    He still worked as a country doctor, looking after rich and poor people. He gave free vaccinations to villagers, from a hut in his garden. In 1800, he vaccinated nearly 200 people in one day, at Petworth in Sussex. After his wife died in 1815, he spent a lot of time collecting fossils.

    Jenner's place in history
    During the war between Britain and France, Jenner asked France's emperor Napoleon to release some English prisoners. Napoleon set the prisoners free, saying he could refuse Jenner nothing. Jenner was an international hero. He had his place in history.

    Edward Jenner died in 1823. A friend said he had never known 'a man of warmer heart'.

    What happened to smallpox?
    Smallpox did not die out for many years. Doctors made Jenner's vaccine better, and started a world-wide programme of vaccination. Year by year fewer people caught smallpox. In 1980 the World Health Organization reported that the world was now free of smallpox.

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Edward Jenner Game

Edward Jenner

Take part in the Medical Matters game show.

Fun Facts
  • Some people made fun of Jenner. An 1802 cartoon showed people with cow's heads, after he had vaccinated them!

  • Jenner found the fossil of a plesiosaur - a giant prehistoric sea reptile.

  • The horns of Blossom the cow are now in a museum.

  • Among the first people vaccinated were Royal Navy sailors.

  • The word 'vaccine' comes from a Latin word for 'cow'.

Other famous scientists

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

A period of 100 years.
country surgeon
A doctor who did his own operations.
A bird that lays its egg in other bird's nests.
A woman who milks cows.
A dangerous illness.

E to G

A scientific test to see what happens, and is often repeated to see if the same thing happens again.
The hard remains of a plant or animal preserved in the ground.
Very tiny living things that can cause diseases.

H to L

Giving people a mild dose of a disease, to protect them from getting it badly.

M to O

A person interested in nature and wildlife.

P to S

A group of people elected to make laws for Britain.
Ancient Egyptian ruler.
Yellow liquid that escapes from a sore on the body.
A sample for study (such as a plant or animal).
A doctor who does operations.

T to Z

To give someone cowpox (not serious) to protect them from smallpox (dangerous).
A Christian priest in charge of a church.