Edward Jenner - the Founder of the First Vaccine Against Smallpox

Edward Anthony Jenner, who is now referred to as the “Father of Immunology”, was a scientist who lived in mid-18th century England. He is famous for being the pioneer of the smallpox vaccine, which was the first successful vaccine to ever be developed. His vaccine, which is still in use today, remains the only effective preventive treatment for the smallpox disease, which was often fatal. His discovery was an incredible breakthrough in medicine, which has effectively saved countless lives. Due to his remarkable research and discovery, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox was essentially an eradicated disease in 1980. Edward Jenner, because of his discovery, is often credited with saving more lives through his work in virology than any human before him.

Edward Jenner was born on 17 May 1749 in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, being the eighth of nine children. Reverend Stephen Jenner, his father, was the vicar of Berkeley. Due to this, Jenner was able to receive a good education at Wotton-under-Edge and Cirencester. When he turned 14, he apprenticed for seven years with Daniel Ludlow, a surgeon of Chipping Sodbury, South Gloucestershire. It was here that he gained the majority of the experience he needed to become a surgeon himself. Jenner then registered as a pupil at St George’s Hospital in 1770, training under the renowned surgeon John Hunter. After completing his studies, he returned to his hometown of Berkeley to begin his own medical practice. At this time in history, smallpox had reached epidemic proportions and was estimated to have killed anywhere from 300 and 500 million people in the 20th century alone. Jenner worked in a predominantly rural area, so the majority of his patients were either farmers, or worked with cattle on farms. In the 18th century Smallpox was estimated to be the deadliest and most persistent human pathogenic disease known. The main treatment for smallpox at that time was inoculation, which was thought to prevent infection. This method was successful for Dutch physiologist Jan Ingenhaus, so it was brought to England in 1721 by the wife of the British Ambassador to Turkey, Lady Mary Wortly Montague. This method was very popular in eastern countries, and involved scratching the vein of an otherwise healthy person and pressing a small amount of smallpox pustule from a person suffering from a mild attack directly into the wound. The downfall of the procedure was that the patient often contracted the full disease, with sometimes fatal results.

In 1788 an epidemic of smallpox swept through the town of Gloucestershire and Jenner observed that his patients that worked with cattle and had subsequently come in contact with the much milder disease, cowpox, never contracted smallpox. Jenner theorized that the pus from the blisters the workers received from a cowpox infection (a disease similar to smallpox, but much less virulent) protected them from smallpox. Jenner devised a way of demonstrating that his theory would actually work.

On 14 May 1796, Jenner conducted an experiment on one of his young patients, eight year old James Phipps. He made two small cuts in James’ arm, then worked a small amount of cowpox puss into the wounds. The infectious matter was taken from a pustule on the arm of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid suffering from the cowpox virus. Phipps contracted cowpox from the exposure, but after a few days of low grade fever and mild uneasiness and mild uneasiness, he fully recovered. Jenner then inoculated the boy again on 1 July, but instead using a potentially lethal dose of smallpox matter. The boy remained healthy with no evidence of a smallpox infection. Jenner continued his research, and successfully tested his method on 23 additional patients.

Jenner’s inoculation of James Phipps was groundbreaking and began a new era in vaccination and the control of infectious diseases. This is how Jenner’s vaccination treatment was born, subsequently named after the medical nomenclature for cowpox, vaccinia.  In 1798, he conducted several more successful tests, and finally published his findings: An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Known by the Name of Cow Pox. The medical establishment deliberated at length over his findings before accepting them. Eventually though, the vaccination was accepted, and in 1840, the British government banned variolation – the use of smallpox to induce immunity – and provided vaccination for smallpox using cowpox free of charge. Immediately, the practice of vaccination was adopted and spread with astonishing speed. It was taken up not just by medical practitioners but also by country gentlemen. clergymen, and schoolmasters. Vaccination to prevent smallpox was soon practiced globally.

Edward Jenner’s discovery of vaccination made possible the immediate control of smallpox and the saving of untold millions of lives. Due to his remarkable accomplishment, Jenner must be considered the founder of immunology.  By the means of vaccination, he made the first use of an attenuated virus for immunization. For his coining of the term “virus” his effort to describe the natural history of the cowpox virus, he must be considered the first pioneer of the modern science of virology. Eventually, a disease that had killed many hundreds of millions, and disfigured and blinded countless more, was completely eradicated due to his work. It is the only infectious disease in humans that has been completely eradicated.

07 July 2022
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