Edward Jenner - 1897 - Science at the Beginning of the 20th Century

All advances in science have a bearing, near or remote, on the welfare of our race; but it remains to credit to the closing decade of the eighteenth century a discovery which, in its power of direct and immediate benefit to humanity, surpasses any other discovery of this or any previous epoch. Needless to say I refer to Jenner's discovery of the method of preventing small-pox by inoculation with the virus of cow-pox. It detracts nothing from the merit of this discovery to say that the preventive power of accidental inoculation had long been rumored among the peasantry of England.

Such vague, unavailing half-knowledge is often the forerunner of fruitful discovery. To all intents and purposes Jenner's discovery was original and unique. Neither, considered as a perfected method, was it in any sense an accident. It was a triumph of experimental science; how great a triumph it is difficult now to understand, for we of today can only vaguely realize what a ruthless and ever-present scourge small - pox had been to all previous generations of men since history began.

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 to-day.

Little wonder, then, that the world gave eager acceptance to Jenner's discovery. The first vaccination was made in 1796.

Before the close of the century the method was practised everywhere in Christendom. No urging was needed to induce the majority to give it trial; passengers on a burning ship do not hold aloof from the life-boats. Rich and poor, high and low, sought succor in vaccination, and blessed the name of their deliverer. Of all the great names that were before the world in the closing days of the century, there was perhaps no other one at once so widely known and so uniformly reverenced as that of the English physician Edward Jenner. Surely there was no other one that should be recalled with greater gratitude by posterity.

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