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Jenner, Edward

smallpox disease inoculated cowpox

(1749–1823) British physician and naturalist: pioneer of vaccination.

Jenner, a vicar’s son, was apprenticed to a surgeon at 13, and at 21 became a pupil of a leading surgeon and anatomist, J Hunter (1728–93) for 3 years. They had similar interests and became lifelong friends; Jenner did well, and could have continued in London, but chose to return to his native village (Berkeley, in Gloucestershire) to practise medicine. At that time smallpox was a long-known and feared disease; epidemics were frequent, mortality was high (typically 20% of those infected) and survivors were disfigured. It was known that survivors are immune to reinfection and that inoculation from a patient with a mild attack of the disease protected against it, but this carried the risk of severe or fatal illness.

Jenner was told by a patient that country people who had cowpox (vaccinia; a rather rare disease of the udders of cows, transmittable to humans and not severe) did not afterwards become smallpox victims. Jenner found 10 such cases. In 1796 he took lymph from a cowpox vesicle on a dairymaid’s finger and inoculated this into a healthy boy; 6 weeks later he inoculated him with smallpox matter, but the boy did not develop smallpox. He went on to show that matter from the boy (fluid from a vesicle) could be used to inoculate other individuals and passed by inoculation from person to person indefinitely without losing its protective effect. He used a thorn for inoculations. After finding that the dried vaccine retained its potency for a few months, he sent a sample to President Thomas Jefferson, who inoculated his family and neighbours at Monticello.

The new procedure (‘vaccination’) was widely but not universally welcomed and by 1800 was much used. In Britain it was made compulsory in 1853, and this was enforced by 1872. Smallpox became the first major disease to be fully overcome, at least in civilized communities; by 1980 it was officially extinct, as there were no recorded cases. It is now known that smallpox (variola) is one of a group of related pox diseases, whose causal agent is a rather large virus of high virulence. Inoculation of the cowpox virus causes production of antibodies effective against smallpox for a period of several years.

Jenner was a keen naturalist, with a special interest in birds: he was the first to show that some birds migrated (rather than hibernated) in winter, and he studied the unusual brood-parasite nesting of the cockoo. He classified the plants from first expedition. He also wrote anti-slavery songs; he was highly regarded by Napoleon (who had his army inoculated) and by the British government, which awarded him £30 000 for his work on vaccination.

Jennifer: A Woman's Story [next] [back] Jeffries, Herb (1911–)

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