Edward Jenner (1749-1823) English Physician - Smallpox Vaccination Pioneer

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

The First Vaccination -- Dr. Edward Jenner by Georges Gaston Melingue. GGA Image ID # 154121b8fd

Introduction and Brief Biography

Additional information and material on Dr. Jenner includes: extended write up of Dr. Jenner (Including large image of The first vaccination by Georges Gaston Melingue) and a lengthy article on the Top Scientific Discoveries of the 1800s.

Edward Jenner was an English country doctor who pioneered vaccination. Jenner's discovery in 1796 that inoculation with cowpox gave immunity to smallpox was an enormous medical breakthrough and has saved countless lives.

Edward Jenner was born on May 17, 1749, in the small village of Berkeley in Gloucestershire. From an early age Jenner was a keen observer of nature, and after nine years as a surgeon's apprentice, he went to St George's Hospital, London to study anatomy and surgery under the prominent surgeon John Hunter. After completing his studies, he returned to Berkeley to set up a medical practice where he stayed until his death in 1823.

Jenner worked in a rural community, and most of his patients were farmers or worked on farms with cattle. In the 18th century, smallpox was a widespread disease and was a significant cause of death.

The primary treatment was by a method which had brought success to a Dutch physiologist Jan Ingenhaus and was brought to England in 1721 from Turkey by Lady Mary Wortly Montague. This technique involved inoculating healthy people with substances from the pustules of those who had a mild case of the disease, but this often had fatal results.

The 1788 Smallpox Epidemic

In 1788 an epidemic of smallpox hit Gloucestershire, and during this outbreak, Jenner observed that those of his patients who worked with cattle and had come in contact with the much milder disease called cowpox never came down with smallpox. Jenner needed a way of showing that his theory actually worked.

Using Cowpox to Prevent Smallpox

Jenner was given the opportunity on the 14 May 1796, when a young milkmaid called Sarah Nelmes came to see him with sores on her hands like blisters. Jenner identified that she had caught cowpox from the cows she handled each day.

Jenner now had the opportunity to obtain the material to try out his theories. He carefully extracted some liquid from her sores and then took some fluid from the lesions of a patient with mild smallpox. Jenner believed that if he could inject someone with cowpox, the germs from the cowpox would make the body able to defend itself against the dangerous smallpox germs which he would inject later.

Dr. Edward Jenner

Jenner approached a local farmer called Phipps and asked him if he could inoculate his son James against smallpox. He explained to the farmer that if his theory was correct, James would never contract smallpox.

Surprisingly, the farmer agreed. Jenner made two small cuts on James's left arm. He then poured the liquid from Sarah's cowpox sores into the open wounds which he bandaged. James went down with cowpox but was not very ill. Six weeks later when James had recovered, Jenner vaccinated him again, this time with the smallpox virus.

This was a dangerous experiment. If James lived, Jenner would have found a way of preventing smallpox. If James developed smallpox and died, he would be a murderer.

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner
From the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Despite all efforts to check it by medication and by direct inoculation, it swept now and then over the earth as an all devastating pestilence, and year by year it claimed one-tenth of all the beings in Christendom by death as its average quota of victims. "

From small-pox and love but few remain free," ran the old saw. A pitted face was almost as much a matter of course a hundred years ago as a smooth one is today.

Results of the Experiment

To Jenner's relief, James did not catch smallpox. His experiment had worked. In 1798 after carrying out further successful tests, he published his findings: An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Known by the Name of Cow Pox.

Jenner called his idea "vaccination" from the word vaccinia which is Latin for cowpox. Jenner also introduced the term virus. Jenner found a great deal of skepticism to his ideas and was subject to much ridicule.

A cartoon was drawn, showing cows coming out of various parts of people's bodies after they had been vaccinated with cowpox. However, Jenner persevered, and eventually, doctors found that vaccination did work and by 1800 most were using it.

Jenner was awarded £30,000 by Parliament to enable him to continue carrying out his tests. Deaths from smallpox plummeted and vaccination spread through Europe and North America. Jenner died in Berkeley on January 26, 1823, aged 74.

Biography Author Unknown.

Awards and Grants to Dr. Edward Jenner (Partial Listing)

Dr. Edward Jenner was the recipient of many awards, lifetime and posthumous including:

  • 1789 - Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine - an award to those whose discoveries and work have proved to be significant advances in human health.- acclaimed scientists Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur among others also received this award.
  • 1801 Diploma of Fellow of the Royal Society of Sciences at Gottingen, September 14.
  • 1802 The British Parliament awards him £10,000
  • 1802 Awarded Honorary Member of Guy's Hospital Physical Society - Diploma of Fellow of the Physical Society of Guy's Hospital.
  • 1802 Naval Medical Officers Award for Saving Many Lives during the Napoleonic War
  • 1802 Manchester Infirmary: Certificate of the success of Vaccine Inoculation, and complimentary address
  • 1802 Edinburgh (March 7) Diploma of Fellow of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh.
  • 1802 Paris - Diploma of Foreign Associate of the Medical Society of Paris.
  • 1802 Massachusetts (May 25) Diploma of Fellow of the American Society of Arts and Sciences in Massachusetts.
  • 1902 Paris (July 29) Official Letter of respect and congratulation upon the general success of Vaccination in France, from the Central Committee of Vaccination.
  • 1803 Freedom of the City Award, City of London, England
  • 1807 British Parliament Grant of £ 20,000
  • 1821 London (March 16) Appointment of Dr. Edward Jenner to be Physician Extraordinary of the King of Great Britain.
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