August 24, 2015

Historical Heroes: Edward Jenner

Goodness, it’s been a while. For anybody wondering where I’ve been, I promise I’ve not been idle. On the contrary, expect to see three books from this author in the next year. Better still, expect them to not be too big a burden on your pocket books. Covering a range of subjects, they nevertheless speak to a number of the themes that have cropped up on this site over the years. I’ll keep you updated, okay? First up, a short biography of the father of the vaccine, Edward Jenner. Here’s a taste of what you can expect.

Edward Jenner, a country surgeon from Gloucestershire, England, was incurably curious. Mentored by the great surgeon, collector and experimenter, John Hunter, Jenner learned to see about him a natural world to be conquered, controlled, brought under the command of the human intellect. Such was the peculiar genius of Enlightenment science and medicine.

Activated by local talk of the powers of a minor disease contracted from the udders of cows, Jenner set about experimenting with cowpox to see if it really did protect a person from the deadly ravages of smallpox. Jenner’s innovation was, first, to infect a person with cowpox from the pustules of another person who already had the disease. This would prove that cowpox was transferable among humans. This he managed to do in 1796: the first vaccination, from vacca, the Latin for cow. His second innovation was to test the power of the vaccine by attempting to give the vaccinated person the smallpox. Lest that sound horrific, keep in mind that until Jenner pioneered a safe way to protect people from the smallpox, most children had been deliberately infected with the ‘speckled monster’ itself, in the hope that they would get away with a light dose of the dreadful disease. Often, those hopes had been dashed.

Jenner had essentially pioneered the clinical trial. While there was still a way to go before the vaccine was fully understood, Jenner’s experimental spirit and his indefatigable campaign to promote his discovery had a substantial impact. Despite fierce resistance in England that would outlast his own life, Jenner’s vaccine quickly made its way around the world, going viral courtesy of empires French, Spanish and British. Death rates from smallpox rapidly tumbled. Jenner is estimated to have saved some ten million lives. This medical victory came despite repeated attacks on the Jenner’s honour, his intellect, and his humanity from his own countrymen.

In 1980, after a concerted global campaign to spread the vaccine Jenner had devised to every corner of the world, the World Health Organisation declared smallpox extinct. It is, to this date, the only human disease to have been completely eliminated from the globe. Is that not the most heroic conclusion to a most heroic career?

Edward Jenner is published in the Pocket Giants series by The History Press this November. It is available for pre-order here and here.

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