Edward Jenner (1749-1823): the vaccine pioneer

We are all looking forward to the widespread use of the vaccine to stop the spread of Coronavirus so that we can return to normal life. And while we wait, we wanted to look back at the man who pioneered the first vaccine, Edward Jenner.

Portrait of Edward Jenner
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Edward Jenner was born in 1749 in the West Country, England, during the Georgian era of British history. He had studied medicine, and had a wide range of scientific interests, which included creating hydrogen balloons, studying cuckoos, and working with Captain Cook. After his apprenticeship, he settled down to be a doctor in his home town of Berkeley in Gloucestershire.

At that time, smallpox (a disease we hardly about know today, thanks to Jenner), caused many many deaths every year, and it also caused blindness.

The main treatment for smallpox was “variolation”, spreading cells from a previously infected person, in the hope a mild form of the disease would give protection. This was not risk free, as the mild form of smallpox could spread, and the person could also pass it on.

Jenner had heard that diary maids, who had had cowpox (a disease of cows udders, that was mild in humans), were protected from smallpox. Others had also noted this, including a Dorset farmer, Benjamin Jesty from Yetminster.

Jenner decided to use, and study, cowpox as a method of prorecting against smallpox. His first case was an 8 year old boy (medical ethics were clearly different in those days). He wrote up his findings in a scientific paper, which was initially rejected, but did further work, and the later version was accepted.

He travelled to London to find more volunteers for his research, and found others who were carrying out vaccinations, some of whom had received samples from Jenner himself. Despite this, and the many doubters, some even mocked him, Jenner believed in the treatment, and continued to promote it tirelessly (to the detriment of his medical practice), and in time the procedure became more widely used, and in America and in the rest of Europe.

Jenner made no attempt to make money from the vaccine, and the time he spent on it made his doctors’s ptactice suffer. but was given money from the British Parliament.

Edward Jenner advising a farmer to vaccinate his family
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Smallpox did not completely go away, and after World War 2, there were 50 million cases of smallpox around the world every year, but 1950 marked the start of a global attempt to eradicate smallpox using a vaccine.

Smallpox has now been eradicated. The last case was in 1977, in Birmingham, UK, when a lab assistant accidentally became infected, and sadly died.

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