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Tag Archives: Edward Jenner

At this moment we are all affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. I, for one, am rather obsessively following all the news about it. I hope everyone is practicing social distancing and staying home, washing hands, and any other measures necessary to keep from spreading the disease.

We all are quarantined, to some degree or another. I hope none of you or your loved ones have contracted the disease. These are scary times.

“Our” era, (Regency England in the early 19th century) was no stranger to feared outbreaks of contagious illness. Smallpox, the Speckled Monster, was one of the most deadly. In 18th century England, smallpox was responsible for half of the deaths of children under age 11.

Smallpox is a viral disease characterized by fever, vomiting, and a skin rash covering the body with fluid-filled bumps which scab over and often cause severe scarring, blindness or death.

Smallpox was present in ancient times, as early as 360 BC in China. It is thought that Ramses V, Pharaoh of Egypt, died of small pox in the 12th century BC. By the 1700s the disease had been spread to the New World, decimating the indigenous populations of North and South America and Australia.

There were no effective treatments for smallpox in the Regency era, although, in 1767, William Watson, a physician at the Foundling Hospital in London tried unsuccessfully to treat it with mercury and laxatives. What was effective was preventative inoculation. Inoculation, pricking the skin with the fluid from a smallpox pustule, had been practiced for a long time in China, India, parts of the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, parts of Africa, and even in Wales, but it did not become widely used in the West until the 1700s. One of its proponents had been Lady Mary Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who had learned of the practice when in Turkey. Her brother had died of smallpox and she herself had suffered the disease. She had her own children inoculated.

Inoculation was not without its risks. While most patients experienced mild symptoms, some patients developed the full disease and died. It did, however, greatly reduce the death rate from smallpox.

In 1796 Edward Jenner created a vaccine for smallpox from the much milder disease of cowpox. It had been observed by Jenner and his colleagues that people who had suffered cowpox did not contract smallpox. Jenner’s vaccination was much safer than inoculation with the smallpox virus itself.

Edward Jenner vaccinating patients

Certainly, the push for vaccination for smallpox would have taken place in the Regency Era and our characters would have known of it and likely would have taken the vaccine. It took awhile for inoculation and vaccination to be universal, but wide vaccination effectively erraticated the disease by 1977.

How are you all coping with our pandemic?

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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