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Anniversary of Edward Jenner's first smallpox vaccination

By Philip Halling

If ever we needed a reminder of the importance of vaccination it is now with the world fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
ST6899 : Dr Jenner's house viewed from the lawn by Philip Halling
The events which took place 225 years ago today in Berkeley, Gloucestershire were a milestone in medical history. In was on 14 May 1796, that Edward Jenner administered the first smallpox vaccination, a step which eventually resulted in the eradication of smallpox almost two centuries later.

Edward who was a physician in Berkeley had noticed that milkmaids appeared to be generally immune to smallpox. Cattle suffer from a similar disease known as cowpox and Jenner considered whether pus from blisters on cow udders protected milkmaids from smallpox.

In an experiment which would have been totally unethical today, Jenner took a small cowpox pustule from milkmaid Sarah Nelmes, and used this to inoculate an eight-year-old boy called James Phipps. He administered it by a scratch on the boy’s arm. As a result, the boy suffered a mild case of cowpox, after which he was infected with human smallpox. The boy shook it off and was unaffected by the disease. By 1801, it is estimated 100,000 people had been vaccinated against smallpox using the same method.
ST6899 : The Temple of Vaccinia by Philip Halling
As a successful doctor, Jenner also had a practice in Cheltenham, a fashionable town at the time with many people visiting to take the waters.
SO9422 : Site of Edward Jenner House by Philip Halling
Though never nationally recognised, Jenner received the freedom of many cities, including London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dublin. He was honoured by universities around the world who gave him honorary degrees. Perhaps most surprising was a special medal minted in France under Napoleon in 1804. There are statues of him, including one in Gloucester Cathedral. There is a statue of him in London’s Kensington Gardens, originally it was in Trafalgar Square. There are also statues of him overseas, including one in Tokyo.
TQ2680 : Statue of Edward Jenner by Philip Halling
Though Edward Jenner will forever be remembered for discovering the smallpox vaccine, there are other aspects of his life which are perhaps less well known.

He was born in Berkeley on 17 May 1749 (new style), one of eight children. His father, the Rev. Stephen Jenner, was the vicar of Berkeley. Edward went to school in nearby Wotton-under-Edge at Katherine, Lady Berkeley's School. At this time, he was inoculated by a method known as variolation, an earlier, riskier method of smallpox inoculation.

From the age of 14, he was apprentice for seven years to Daniel Ludlow, a surgeon in Chipping Sodbury, in South Gloucestershire. In 1770, he continued his medical studies and became an apprentice of surgery and anatomy, under surgeon John Hunter at St George's Hospital, London. He returned to Gloucestershire and became a doctor in his hometown of Berkeley in 1773.

Edward Jenner had an interest in wildlife and in particular studied swallows and swifts, and cuckoos. At the time many believed swallows and swifts hibernated underwater through winter. Through his studies it was Jenner who put forward the idea these birds migrated, though he didn’t know where they went.

Also, he studied cuckoos and discovered their habit of laying eggs in the nest of other birds. After examining newly hatched cuckoos, he discovered they had an indentation in their back, used to eject eggs of the host species from the nest. He discovered the indentation disappeared after 12 days. His work on the breeding habits of cuckoos gained him admittance to the Royal Society in 1788.

In the 1780s balloon flight was in its infancy. On 2 September 1784, Jenner launched a balloon from the courtyard of Berkeley Castle. The balloon drifted to the east over the Cotswolds and landed in Kingscote Park, near Tetbury. The park was owned by Anthony Kingscote and it is believed on this day, Jenner met Catherine, daughter of Anthony. Four years later Edward and Catherine were married in Kingscote church. She was obviously impressed by his balloon.
ST8196 : Inscription celebrating the marriage of Edward Jenner by Philip Halling ST8196 : Kingscote Church by Philip Halling
The balloon was launched again and this time drifted north, eventually landing near Birdlip. The Air Balloon Inn, so often mentioned in traffic reports, is believed to have been named after this event.
SO9316 : The Air Balloon Inn by Philip Halling
Edward Jenner died on 26 January 1823, aged 73. There is a memorial statue of him in Gloucester Cathedral however, he was buried in the family vault at the Church of St Mary, Berkeley.
SO8318 : Edward Jenner memorial in Gloucester Cathedral by Philip Halling ST6899 : Tower of Berkeley church by Philip Halling
On such a significant anniversary it seems fitting that today I have had my second COVID-19 injection.

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Fri, 14 May 2021 at 16:41
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