Thank you, Dr. Jenner

Today’s the anniversary of the day Edward Jenner (1749-1823) introduced the smallpox vaccine in 1799.

Smallpox was a terrible disease, now eradicated, that killed one in three of those who caught it and could severely disfigure anyone who survived. Yet folklore, as Jenner knew, held that milkmaids or others associated with cows, caught a minor form of the illness (cowpox) which seemed to protect them from smallpox. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, during her time in Constantinople, became a convert to variolation, an early form of vaccination, and brought the practice back to England. There were several other contemporaries of Jenner’s, including a Dorset farmer who successfully vaccinated his wife and two children, who were thinking along the same lines.

In 1796, Jenner tested his theory by inoculating an eight year old boy with material from the cowpox blisters of milkmaid Sarah Nelms, who had caught it from a cow named Blossom. Blossom’s hide hangs in the library of St. George’s Medical School, University of London–sadly, I could not find a picture.

In 1801 James Gillray produced this cartoon of the Smallpox Inoculation Hospital in St. Pancras, London.

And here, yuk, is the arm of William Pead, from an 1800 engraving, an illustration used by Jenner in An Enquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variola Vaccinae.

Jenner named the procedure vaccination from the Latin word for cow, vacca.

His home in the town of Berkeley is now a museum. This is his Temple of Vaccinia in the grounds. The museum has a petition to sign to return Jenner’s statue to Trafalgar Square this year to commemorate thirty years of the eradication of smallpox, so if you’re a UK citizen, please sign it!

I’m having trouble thinking of an appropriate followup question. I don’t want to know about any pustules you may have developed and I doubt many of us own cows so I can’t ask you the name of your favorite cow.

So, how about inventing a bit of dialogue for Jenner and his milkmaid, Jenner and his cow, or someone about to receive a vaccination without knowing exactly what is involved, such as:

“Just a little prick, my dear.”

“Oh, la, sir, you are too modest.”

The one I like best will receive a prize, a truly dreadful collection of the plots of Austen’s novels in verse, that I was sent by my favorite ex-sister in law in England, who probably acquired it at a church jumble sale. It is signed by the author.

So get busy!

 

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