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Edward Jenner Biography by John Timbs, F.S.A.

Edited by Charles F. Horne 1894




Dr. Edward Jenner

Few of the many thousand ills which human flesh is heir to, have spread such devastation among the family of man as small-pox. Its universality has ranged from the untold tribes of savages to the silken baron of civilization ; and its ravages on life and beauty have been shown in many a sad tale of domesticates suffering. To stay the destroying hand of such a scourge, which by some has been identified with the Plague of Athens, was reserved for Edward Jenner, the discoverer of vaccination.

The great fact can, however, be traced half a century before Jenner's time. In the journal of John Byron, F.R.S., under date June 3, 1725, it is recorded that : "At a meeting of the Royal Society, Sir Isaac Newton presiding, Dr. Jurin read a case of small-pox, where a girl who had been inoculated and had been vaccinated, was tried and had them not again ; but another [a] boy, caught the small-pox from this girl, and had the confluent kind and died."

This case occurred at Hanover. The inoculation of the girl seems to have failed entirely ; it was suspected that she had not taken the true small-pox ; doubts, however, were removed, as a boy, who daily saw the girl, fell ill and died, " having had a very bad small-pox of the confluent sort."

This is the first use of the word vaccination, or, more familiarly, cow-pox, which is an eruption arising from the insertion into the system of matter obtained from the eruption on the teats and udders of cows, and especially in Gloucestershire ; it is also frequently denominated vaccine matter; and the whole affair, inoculation and its consequences, is called vaccination, from the Latin vacca, a cow.

It is admitted that Jenner's merit lay in the scientific application of his knowledge of the fact that the chapped hands of milkers of cows sometimes proved a preventive of small-pox, and from those of them whom he endeavored to inoculate resisting the infection.

These results were probably known far beyond Jenner's range, and long before his time ; for we have respectable testimony of their having come within the observation of a Cheshire gentleman, who had been informed of them shortly after settling on his estate in Prestbury parish, in or about 1740.

This does not in the least detract from Jenner's merit, but shows that to his genius for observation, analogy, and experiment, we are indebted for this application of a simple fact, only incidentally remarked by others, but by Jenner rendered the stepping-stone to his great discovery—or, in other words, extending its benefits from a single parish in Gloucestershire to the whole world.

We agree with a contemporary, that, "among all the names which ought to be consecrated by the gratitude of mankind, that of Jenner stands pre-eminent. It would be difficult, we are inclined to say impossible, to select from the catalogue of benefactors to human nature an individual who has contributed so largely to the preservation of life, and to the alleviation of suffering.

Into whatever corner of the world the blessing of printed knowledge has penetrated, there also will the name of Jenner be familiar ; but the fruits of his discovery have ripened in barbarous soils, where books have never been opened, and where the savage does not pause to inquire from what source he has derived relief. No improvement in the physical sciences can bear a parallel with that which ministers in every part of the globe to the prevention of deformity, and, in a great proportion, to the exemption from actual destruction."

The ravages which the small-pox formerly committed are scarcely conceived or recollected by the present generation. An instance of death occurring after vaccination is now eagerly seized and commented upon ; yet seventy years have not elapsed since this disease might fairly be termed the scourge of mankind, and an enemy more extensive and more insidious than even the plague.

A family blighted in its fairest hopes through this terrible visitation was an every-day spectacle : the imperial House of Austria lost eleven of its offspring in fifty years. This instance is mentioned because it is historical ; but in the obscure and unrecorded scenes of life this pest was often a still more merciless intruder.

Edward Jenner was the third son of the Vicar of Berkeley, in Gloucestershire, where he was born, May 17, 1749. Before he was nine years of age he showed a growing taste for natural history, in forming a collection of the nests of the dormouse ; and when at school at Cirencester he was fond of searching for fossils, which abound in that neighborhood.

He was articled to a surgeon at Sudbury, near Bristol, and at the end of his apprenticeship came to London and studied under John Hunter, with whom he resided as a pupil for two years and formed a lasting friendship with that great man. In 1773 he returned to his native village, and commenced practice as a surgeon and apothecary, with great success. Nevertheless, he abstracted from the fatigues of country practice sufficient time to form a museum of specimens of comparative anatomy and natural history.

He was much liked, was a man of lively and simple humor, and loved to tell his observation of nature in homely verse ; and in 1788 he communicated to the Royal Society his curious paper on the cuckoo. At the same time he carried to London a drawing of the casual disease, as seen on the hands of the milkers, and showed it to Sir Everard Home and to others.

John Hunter had alluded frequently to the fact in his lectures ; Dr. Adams had heard of the cow-pox both from Hunter and Clive, and mentions it in his " Treatise on Poisons," published in 1795, three years previous to Jenner's own publication. Still, no one had the courage or the penetration to prosecute the inquiry except Jenner.

Jenner now resolved to confine his practice to medicine, and obtained, in 1792, a degree of M.D. from the University of St. Andrew's. We now arrive at the great event of Jenner's life. While pursuing his professional education in the house of his master at Sudbury, a young countrywoman applied for advice ; and the subject of small-pox being casually mentioned, she remarked she could not take the small-pox because she had had cow-pox ; and he then learnt that it was a popular notion in that district, that milkers who had been infected with a peculiar eruption which sometimes occurred on the udder of the cow, were completely secure against the small-pox.

The medical gentlemen of the district told Jenner that the security which it gave was not perfect ; and Sir George Baker, the physician, treated it as a popular error. But Jenner thought otherwise ; and although John Hunter and other eminent surgeons disregarded the subject, Jenner pursued it. He found at Berkeley that some persons, to whom it was impossible to give small-pox by inoculation, had had cowpox ; but that others who had had cow-pox yet received small-pox.

This led to the doctor's discovery that the cow was subject to a certain eruption, which had the power of guarding from small-pox ; and next, that it might be possible to propagate the cow-pox, and with it security from the small-pox, first from the cow to the human body, and thence from one person to another. Here, then, was an important discovery, that matter from the cow, intentionally inserted into the body, gave a slighter ailment than when received otherwise, and yet had the same effect of completely preventing small-pox.

The First Vaccination - Dr. Edward Jenner by Georges-Gaston Mélingue

The First Vaccination - Dr. Edward Jenner by Georges-Gaston Mélingue

But of what advantage was it for mankind that the cows of Gloucestershire possessed a matter thus singularly powerful ? How were persons living at a distance to derive benefit from this great discovery ? Dr. Jenner, having inoculated several persons from a cow, took the matter from the human vesicles thus produced, and inoculated others, and others from them again ; thus making it pass in succession through many individuals, and all with the same good effect in preventing small-pox.

An opportunity occurred of making a trial of the latter on May 14, 1796 (a day still commemorated by the annual festival at Berlin), when a boy, aged eight years, was vaccinated with matter from the hands of a milkmaid ; the experiment succeeded, and he was inoculated for small-pox on July 1st following without the least effect. Dr. Jenner then extended his experiments, and in 1798 published his first memoir on the subject.

He had originally intended to communicate his results to the Royal Society, but was admonished not to do so, lest it should injure the character which he had previously acquired among scientific persons by his paper on the natural history of the cuckoo. In the above work Dr. Jenner announces the security against small-pox afforded by the true cowpox, and also traces the origin of that disease in the cow to a similar affection of the heel of the horse.

The method, however, met with much opposition, until, in the following year, thirty-three leading physicians and forty eminent surgeons of London signed an earnest expression of their confidence in the efficacy of the cow-pox. The royal family of England exerted themselves to encourage Jenner ; the Duke of Clarence, the Duke of York, the king, the Prince of Wales, and the queen bestowed great attention upon Jenner.

The incalculable utility of cow-pox was at last evinced ; and observation and experience furnished evidence enough to satisfy the Baillies and Heberdens, the Monros and Gregorys of Britain, as well as the physicians of Europe, India, and America. The new practice now began to supersede the old plan pursued by the Small-pox Hospital, which had been founded for inoculation. The two systems were each pursued until 1808, when the hospital governors discontinued small-pox inoculation.

A committee of Parliament was now appointed to consider the claims of Jenner upon the gratitude of his country. It was clearly proved that he had converted into scientific demonstration a tradition of the peasantry. Two parliamentary grants, of £ 10,000 and £ 20,000, were voted to him. In 1808 the National Vaccine Establishment was formed by Government, and placed under his direction. Honors were profusely showered upon him by various foreign princes, as well as by the principal learned bodies of Europe.

Dr. Jenner passed the remainder of his years principally at Berkeley and at Cheltenham, continuing to the last his inquiries on the great object of his life. He died at Berkeley, in February, 1823, at the green old age of seventy-four : his remains lie in the chancel of the parish church of Berkeley. A marble statue by Sievier has been erected to his memory in the nave of Gloucester Cathedral ; and another statue of him has been placed in a public building at Cheltenham. Five medals have been struck in honor of Jenner : three by the German nation ; one by the surgeons of the British navy ; and the fifth by the London Medical Society.

Dr. Jenner was endowed with a rare quality of mind, which it may be both interesting, and beneficial to sketch. A singular originality of thought was his leading characteristic. He appeared to have naturally inherited what in others is the result of protracted study.

He seemed to think from originality of perception alone, and not from induction. He arrived by a glance at inferences which would have occupied the laborious conclusions of most men.

In human and animal pathology, in comparative anatomy, and in geology, he perceived facts and formed theories instantaneously, and with a spirit of inventive penetration which distanced the slower approaches of more learned men. But if his powers of mind were singularly great, the qualities which accompanied them were still more felicitous.

He possessed the most singular amenity of disposition with the highest feeling, the rarest simplicity united to the highest genius. In the great distinction and the superior society to which his discovery introduced him, the native cast of his character was unchanged. Among the great monarchs of Europe, who, when in Great Britain, solicited his acquaintance, he was the unaltered Dr. Jenner of his birthplace.

In the other moral points of his character, affection, friendship, beneficence, and liberality were pre-eminent. In religion, his belief was equally remote from laxity and fanaticism ; and he observed to an intimate friend, not long before his death, that he wondered not that the people were ungrateful to him for his discovery, but he was surprised that they were ungrateful to God for the benefits of which he was the humble means.

Source: Great Men and Famous Women: A Series of Pen and Pencil Sketches of the Lives of More Than 200 of the Most Prominent Personages in History, Vol. VI, Edited by Charles F. Horne, Copyright 1894, by Selmar Hess. Published by Selmar Hess, Publisher, New York, Pages 263-267.

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