The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Edward Jenner. The conquest of smallpox

Category: Famous people

Edward Jenner. The conquest of smallpoxSmallpox was quite usual in the past, and it took millions of lives. It killed people in Asia and Africa, and it was a terrible illness in Europe too. Be­ginning with the 15th century, Europe was like a great smallpox hospital in which more than one and a half mil­lion people died every year. At the beginning of the 17th century an epidemic of smallpox broke out in Siberia. Half and in some places two thirds of the whole population died of this disease within a year. One person easily caught it from another, and when lie had caught it, the doctors could do very little to help him.

Attempts to cure smallpox were made in China, India and North Africa, and in other parts of the world. Some doctors tried to do what we now call preventive inocula­tion, but at the time the level of medical knowledge was very low, and these inoculations only spread other infec­tious diseases.

As people were helpless to fight smallpox, they asked the god to help them. They prayed, they carried talismans and they made offerings.

Many very cruel means were used to treat smallpox which made people suffer but did not help. It is no wonder, because these means wore offered by the church, and the church has always made use of natural calamities to strengthen its position and its influence on the oppressed and ignorant masses. “The calamity has been sent by god, so only god can save you,” the clergy always said.

That is why the church was the worst enemy of the effective means of fighting smallpox which were discovered in the 18th century.

Edward Jenner’s Work

Today we do not often see anyone with the marks of smallpox on the face. Smallpox has almost disappeared thanks to the work of Edward Jenner, who was born at Berkeley in Gloucestershire, England, in 1749. His father and mother died when he was quite young; but his elder brother Stephen and some other people took care of him. Edward loved the country, and especially birds and wild animals. He also liked to study various plants and trees. After going to school for some years, Edward decided to become a doctor. He went to study under Doctor Ludlow near Bristol.

When Edward Jenner had learned all that old Doctor Ludlow could teach him, in 1769 he went to London to study with John Hunter, who conducted a medical school.

Today anyone who wishes to become a doctor must go to a medical institute and work hard there for many years, perhaps five or six. But this was not done in Jenner’s life­time, when there were few doctors and no medical institutes. In those days a young man who wanted to be a doctor had first to find a doctor who was willing to accept a student. The young man then worked with him, visited the sick with him, learnt what to do by watching and helping.

Doctor J. Hunter was a well-known naturalist and sur­geon of his day and he quickly recognized the boy’s talent. So when Jenner had finished his studies, the famous doctor offered to hire him as an assistant. At the same time the explorer of the South Seas, captain James Cook, invited him to come on an expedition as ship’s naturalist.

Edward Jenner declined both offers and went home to the quiet village that he loved. Here he settled down as a doctor.

Before Jenner went to London, while he was still work­ing with Doctor Ludlow (1768), a young countrywoman came to ask for advice and smallpox was mentioned. The girl said that she could not catch smallpox because she had already had cow-pox.

In the fight against smallpox it was difficult to imagine anything more important than this, if it was true. But was it true?

When Jenner arrived at Berkeley he began to work much as there were a lot of patients. Each year smallpox epidemics broke out and he saw people dying in terrible torments. He was unable to help them, but he could not forget what the milk-maid had said years before, “I cannot take this disease. I’ve had the cow-pox!” Jenner asked the country people about cow-pox, and found that many of the men and women believ­ed that the girl’s words were true. Jenner became convinced that no one who had had cow-pox ever caught smallpox.

He told other doctors about his ideas, but they would not agree with him. Some of them laughed at him, others began to avoid him. And when Jenner went to London and told the London doctors about it, he found that they had little respect for ideas of unknown doctors who had worked in the country far away from the capital.

We must remember, of course, that Jenner had only an idea. He had never tried it out on anyone; he could show no results. In London Jenner asked John Hunter, “Do you think that cow-pox really prevents smallpox?” Hunter did not know the answer but he said, “Don’t think! Try! Be patient. Be accurate.” They were wise words. Jenner remem­bered them, and he wanted to follow his old teacher’s advice. But was it safe to try? No doctor likes to risk human lives.

He began all over again, with a careful examination of all the local cows. For more than twenty years Jenner studied cow-pox and experimented on animals. But to find out the truth he had to make a decisive experiment.

In 1796 Jenner examined a young woman who had cow-pox. As he looked at her hand the voice of the now dead John Hunter was in his ear, “Don’t think! Try!” He had been thinking for fourteen years. Surely it was time to try!

Jenner took some of the matter from one of the pock­marks on the woman’s hand, cut the skin on the arm of an eight-year-old boy, and put the matter into the cut. The name of the boy to whom he gave cow-pox was James Phipps.

Jenner studied the cow-pox marks. They were so like the marks of smallpox that he was quite surprised. “But listen to the most delightful part of my story,” Jenner wrote to a friend in a letter dated July 19, 1796. And the delight­ful part was this: as he had given the boy cow-pox, he now gave him smallpox by cutting the skin as before. But the smallpox had no effect on the boy at all. His health did not suffer; he never caught smallpox.

It was a great victory. The experiment was successful, the terrible enemy, smallpox, had been beaten.

The Latin word for cow is vacca and because Jenner was using matter from a cow’s skin, he called his work vaccination. When he put the matter into a person’s arm, he vaccinated the person.

Jenner, still cautious, repeated the experiment twenty- three times. Then he wrote his historic paper which he call­ed An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae and sent it to the Royal Society in 1797. The Society did not publish the book but this did not stop Jenner. A year later he published the book with his own money and the world learned about his ideas.

Jenner’s discovery was heatedly attacked by many doc­tors. Jenner, however, did not take this very seriously be­cause he knew’ that nothing in science established itself at once. The real threat to Jenner’s discovery was to come from another source—the church.

For the church this modest country doctor was a danger­ous enemy. By his discovery Jenner helped millions of peo­ple save their lives. They had no need now to bring their last pennies to the places of worship to beg god for deli­verance from the terrible disease.

War was declared against Jenner. The churchmen per­suaded people not to be vaccinated and under their influ­ence more and more absurd suppositions appeared in news­papers and magazines.

Some people believed that everyone who had been given cow-pox would easily catch all the other illnesses from which cows suffer. One man said that he had noticed the face of a boy who had been treated as Jenner advised; the boy’s face had begun to look like a cow’s face. Other people said that children who had been vaccinated began to moo.

But the facts could be understood by anyone who studied them. It was soon quite clear that people who had been vaccinated did not catch smallpox, and people were so afraid of the disease that they were ready to do almost anything. At last a doctor in London followed Jenner’s advice and also started to vaccinate people. Others followed his example. More than seventy London doctors signed a declaration of confidence in Jenner’s discovery. The number of smallpox deaths began to shrink. In England alone Jennier’s discovery saved forty-five thousand people from death, in a single year. In 1800 smallpox vaccination was introduc­ed in the British navy. A ship with Jenner’s vaccine was sent to Gibraltar, Malta, Sicily and Naples. Before long, Jenner was acclaimed everywhere.

Honours and gifts from ail over the world came to Jen­ner. He built a house for James Phipps and planted roses in the garden with his own hands.

Jenner’s idea reached many countries. Jenner was made honorary member of nearly all the learned societies in Europe. In Germany, May 14 — the date of James Phipps’s vaccination—was declared a yearly national holiday.

Jenner received many invitations from London where wealth and honours awaited him. But he refused to go there and continued his work in Berkeley, until he died at the age of seventy-four. As Jenner wished, he was buried in Berkeley. A monument showing Edward Jenner vaccinating a child was unveiled in London in 1858.

It is interesting that no other vaccine was discovered until 1879, when Louis Pasteur applied Jenner’s method to other illnesses.

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