John Rhodes, immunologist and author of a new book about Edward Jenner and vaccination, The End of Plagues: The Global Battle Against Infectious Disease, pays tribute to Jenner. Jenner won a place in our online poll in June to find the top ten biologists who had changed the world as part of our hertiage focused project, Biology: Changing the World.
Vaccination has become the most successful medical measure of all time, ridding the world of smallpox and transforming the health prospects of every child in affluent nations for the last century. But it all began in the study of a modest country doctor in rural Gloucestershire in 1796. When Edward Jenner vaccinated eight year old James Phipps with cowpox to protect him against smallpox, he was putting into practice insights into the nature of infectious disease that were truly remarkable for his time.
Jenner was born on May 17, 1749, in Berkeley in the Severn Vale. Most of his working life would be spent in this peaceful rural town. At thirteen he was apprenticed to a local surgeon and later won a place with the eminent surgeon John Hunter at St Georges Hospital London. After two years of intensive study, Jenner returned to Berkeley and a quiet rural practice together with scholarly studies in natural history. Eighty years before Jenner’s great discovery the technique of variolation, using small amounts of smallpox administered through skin abrasions, had been introduced into England, but this carried a 1 in 50 chance of death. By comparison vaccination was a safe procedure.
The great strengths Jenner brought to his studies included his quite exceptional powers of observation and his insights into the nature of infection. Without knowing anything about viruses or bacteria, he was able to visualise the characteristics of infectious agents, grasping that different infectious agents might produce similar symptoms, might occur in the same lesions in a consistent sequence, and might become weakened or lost in tissues and in storage over time. His realisation, in rigorous intellectual terms, that one mysterious infectious entity (from a different species) could protect against another quite different infection was an insight without precedent. Crucially he also proved the effectiveness of his vaccine in four of his ten carefully observed cases and published his fully documented studies for the world to judge.
At first, Jennerian vaccination was derided and ridiculed by many. Far from being an obvious, development, it took time to win acceptance and many accidents, including disastrous vaccine contaminations with smallpox, fuelled the furious debate. But gradually the great benefits of vaccination were appreciated. Until the end of his life in 1823 Jenner remained busy as ‘vaccine clerk to the world.’ On May 14, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson wrote to Jenner, ‘You have erased from the calendar of human afflictions one of its greatest… Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox has existed and by you has been extirpated.’
Biology: Changing the World is a heritage project of the Society, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and in partnership with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council