Edward Jenner – The greatest man you might never have heard of

This morning I received my free Flu vaccination and a time when nearly all of us are fortunate enough to receive vaccinations and inoculations for many illnesses from the winter flu upwards it is well worth remembering that there was once a time when people weren’t so lucky.  When there were countless diseases and infections that were every bit as deadly and even more untreatable than Ebola has been until at least very recently.

In Victorian Britain, people were considered lucky to reach their 40th birthday and yet this in itself is a much longer life than was enjoyed in the preceding centuries.

The very fact that you are reading this blog today may well be due to one man, Edward Jenner.  He was born on 17th January 1749 and is widely considered to be the father of immunology.   His work not just in creating a vaccine for smallpox but also on vaccinations generally mean that he has no doubt saved more lives than anyone before or since.

Portrait of Edward Jenner by James Northcote

Portrait of Edward Jenner by James Northcote

Born the son of  a Reverend in the small Gloucester town of Berkeley, Edward Jenner was fortunate to receive a good education.  At the age of 14 he became an apprentice to the surgeon Daniel Ludlow for 7 years which gave him the grounding for his future career.

Working under the auspices of the legendary surgeon, John Hunter, he was part of a small team of men who worked to bring medicine from being something of a best-guess butchery to a modern science.

Science played an important role in every aspect of Edward Jenners life.  He even met his wife during an experience with balloons, his society of friends recently discovering and isolating the first gasses including Hydrogen and Oxgyen, when a balloon filled with gas landed in the grounds of an estate where Catherine Kingscote lived.

Though there was an inoculation method against Smallpox that had long been used by the Ottomans in Istanbul, 20% of those died and 60% of those inoculated went on to endure full blown Smallpox which was a terrible disease that killed many and left survivors disfigured in a way unimaginable to us today.

Far from today when celebrities are ditching milk and dairy products in the belief that it helps their skin, back in the 18th century it was a well known belief that milk-maids generally had much better health than the general population.  Their skin was healthy and attractive to look at and more importantly they never seemed to contract Smallpox.

Milkmaids did however suffer from Cowpox, a disease transmitted from cows and with similar but infinitely milder symptoms than Smallpox.  In fact when a town or village suffered from a deadly Smallpox outbreak, it was a pretty safe bet that milkmaids would not be affected at all.

Edward Jenner postulated that the pus that was inside the blisters of cowpox somehow offered the milkmaids a natural protection against the disease and putting into practice the medical saying of the time “don’t think, try”, he wanted to prove it.

On 14th May 1796 scraped the pus from the blister of a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes who contracted Cowpox from her cow, Blossom.  Jenner then proceeded to infect James Phipps, the 8 year old son of his garden with the Cowpox puss.  The young boy became somewhat ill from a fever but did not develop the disease itself.  Then Edward Jenner injected the boy with Smallpox not just on one occasion but twice.  Little James Phipps did not fall ill with Smallpox and was totally unharmed and he had also become the first person in the world to be successfully treated with a safe inoculation.

Jenner’s unique contribution was not that he inoculated a few persons with cowpox, but that he then proved  that they were immune to smallpox. Moreover, he demonstrated that the protective cowpox pus could be effectively inoculated from person to person, not just directly from cattle.Jenner successfully tested his hypothesis on 23 additional subjects.


Contemporary image illustrating the first recipients of the vaccine wondering whether they will take on cow like characteristics.

Jenner continued his research and reported it to the Royal Society, which did not publish the initial paper. After revisions and further investigations, he published his findings on the 23 cases. Some of his conclusions were correct, some erroneous. The medical establishment, cautious then as now, deliberated at length over his findings before accepting them. Eventually, vaccination was accepted, and in 1840, the British government banned variolation – the use of smallpox to induce immunity – and provided vaccination using cowpox free of charge. The success of his discovery soon spread around Europe and and the world. Jenner himself wrote, “I don’t imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this.”

Such was the importance of Jenner’s work that he was unable to take up paid work at his medical practice and so the King and Parliament agreed to fund his work with donations of first £10,000 and then £20,000.

In January 1823, Edward Jenner was discovered partially paralysed after apparently suffering a stroke and he died just days afterwards at the age of 73.

Memorial to Edward Jenner in Gloucester Cathedral.  Photo by Andrew Rabbott.

Memorial to Edward Jenner in Gloucester Cathedral. Photo by Andrew Rabbott.

His legacy to medicine and the world at large is unquantifiable and in 1979 the World Health Organisation formally declared that Smallpox had been eradicated.  Jenner’s work has gone on to the basis of modern immunology that the vast majority of the world now receive shortly after birth.

Though many do not know anything of Edward Jenner, it is likely that in some-way most of us owe our existence to him in some way.  He is commemorated across southern England in understated ways with statues, hospital wards and colleges bearing his name. His former home now a small museum whilst a number of small villages in Pennsylvania are named after the great man as well as a crater on the moon. The hide of Blossom the cow is mounted on the walls of St George’s Medical School Library in Tooting.

Since I wrote this post earlier this week, I have started watching the TV show The Walking Dead which for 2 episodes in season 1 feature a man working in a laboratory trying to find a cure for the disease.  His name was Edwin Jenner.

In 2002 Edward Jenner was named number 78 on the list of Greatest Britons poll.

Memorial to Edward Jenner in Kensington Gardens.  Photo  by Iridescent

Memorial to Edward Jenner in Kensington Gardens. Photo by Iridescent

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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6 Responses to Edward Jenner – The greatest man you might never have heard of

  1. Malla Duncan says:

    Excellent post as usual. I’m sure there are people of Jenner’s calibre and commitment working on an Ebola vaccine today.


    • Thank-you. I’m sure there are too. I guess in some ways it is harder for them to gain recognition as we are all so used to almost incremental breakthroughs whereas Jenner being so revolutionary really stands out from his contemporaries. Having said that though, I don’t think he gets as much recognition as he should as in many ways he is comparable with Newton, Darwin and Einstein.


  2. Don’t think I’ve ever had a flu vaccine. I think the only vaccine I’ve ever had was TB. But I’m still alive so I’m fine…

    Jenner was a great man indeed.


  3. Pete says:

    Reblogged this on Pete's Favourite Things and commented:
    As someone who spent most of hid professional life working in Medical Immunology, Jenner is certainly one of my heroes. It not just that he did what he did, but that he had the courage to do so despite the scorn of both the public and the medical community. Our lives would be very different without his efforts and are particularly relevant as the world races to try and develop an effective Ebola vaccination at this time.


  4. Pingback: Coronavirus Diary 73 – I got my vaccine! | Stephen Liddell

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