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Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner Photo

Edward Anthony Jenner, born in 1749, was a scientist and country doctor/surgeon of English origins most renowned for his invention and introduction of the smallpox vaccine, which also happened to be the world’s first vaccine to have been introduced and used. Jenner was born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire – a county in South West England, in the household of Reverend Stephen Jenner who served as a vicar in Berkeley.

Jenner acquired his early school education at Wotton-under-Edge and Cirencester, both towns in East Gloucestershire before he would be apprenticed to Daniel Ludlow, a surgeon at Chipping Sodbury, South Gloucestershire for over seven years, during which time Jenner became accustomed to the methods and practices in surgery in order to become a surgeon himself. Jenner then went on to complete his medical studies at St George’s Hospital, London where he came under the wing of the well-known surgeon John Hunter and studied anatomy and surgery and gained inspiration from Hunter’s philosophy of Don’t think, try – words that edged Jenner on to his career of remarkable discoveries. Upon culmination of his academic studies in medicine, Jenner returned to Berkeley where he was to stay for the rest of his illustrious life and practiced medicine in his native town.

The advancement of Jenner’s career in medicine witnessed him becoming a member of the Fleece Medical Society – a society named after the Fleece Inn in Rodborough where a group of doctors and scientists held regular meetings and discussions on medical issues and news.

Apart from being a prolific surgeon and commentator on medicine, Jenner was also a keen naturalist and studied various specimens that were brought back from James Cook’s voyage to the Pacific.

Jenner’s most noteworthy contribution to the world of science and medicine came with the discovery of the vaccine for smallpox. At Berkeley, Jenner practiced medicine in the rural areas where most of his patients were farmers or cattle rearers.  And so he had come across the folklore that those who acquired cowpox from their cows were immune to contact with smallpox. During the 18th century, smallpox was considered one of the deadliest diseases of its time and the core method in practice was to prevent the disease through inoculation.

In 1788, Gloucestershire was at the receiving end of a deadly wave of smallpox that had affected many a people and claimed fair few lives. It was during this outbreak that Edward Jenner put his observation to work to realize that those who had prior exposure to cowpox were somehow rendered immune to the wrath of smallpox. Although prior to Jenner’s observations, many scientists with the likes of Dr. John Fewster and Jacques Antoine Rabaut-Pommie along with Dorset farmer Benjamin Jesty had tried to establish an association between the cowpox and its prevention of smallpox, it wasn’t until Jenner’s findings that the theory gained recognition.

In May 1796, after having diagnosed a milkmaid Sarah Nelmes with cowpox rather than smallpox Jenner had the brainwave to put his theory to test. Jenner inoculated his gardener’s eight-year-old son, James Phipps with the cowpox blisters from the Milkmaid, Nelmes’ hands. A few days after being inoculated the young boy developed a mild fever which was then rightly diagnosed as cowpox, in turn proving that cowpox was contagious. Jenner was now left to see whether Phipps’ cowpox would prevent him from acquiring smallpox. Jenner then introduced variolous material to Phipps’ body and anticipated in fear and excitement of the outcome. Phipps showed resistance to the mild form of smallpox and thus Jenner went on to prove his theoretical association between cowpox and its rendered immunity towards smallpox. Following the success of his findings, Jenner submitted a paper to the Royal Society in 1797, a feat that was acknowledged but dismissed due to lack of additional proof. Undefeated, Jenner continued his quest with experimenting on many other children, including his own 11-month-old son. In 1798, Jenner published his findings through his book “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae” and coined the word vaccine, derived from the Latin word ‘Vacca’ for the cow.

Edward Jenner was elected as a fellow to the Royal Society in 1788 because of his contributions to the field of zoology and in 1805 was appointed as a member of the Royal Society of Medicine.

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