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Edward Jenner, completely cuckoo! And news of a new book….

100 facts imageTo mark the imminent release of my new book, The Georgians in 100 facts’ I thought I would borrow a few of the facts featured in the book, and add illustrations. First up: the remarkable Edward Jenner.

For a man credited with saving more lives than anyone else in history, and of leading to the first ever eradication of a disease which had previously afflicted mankind, Edward Jenner was something of a polymath. He was interested in fossils, in hot air ballooning, in heart disease, and in the cuckoo. Indeed he had already been made a member of the Royal Society on the strength of the research he carried out on the nesting habits of the cuckoo, before he even started looking into immunisation, vaccines, and cow pox. It was Jenner who established that the young cuckoo chick was responsible for ejecting its nest-mates, not the adult bird.


J1He was the son of an Anglican clergyman and received a good education before being apprenticed, as a fourteen year old, to a surgeon in Chipping Sodbury. At the age of twenty-one he went away to study surgery and anatomy, before returning to his native village of Berkeley in Gloucestershire to become a country G.P. He was personally familiar with the prevailing fashion of immunising against smallpox, because he had been immunised as a schoolboy. The method of immunisation, known as variolation, involved deliberately infecting a fit, healthy person with a supposedly mild strain of the disease, by injecting the patient with matter taken from someone who had had a mild attack of smallpox. In Edward’s case it meant a period of starvation, and being shut up in a confined space with other boys, before being given a dose of a potentially fatal disease. With variolation it was an entirely hit-and-miss affair as to whether the patient would suffer, or not at all.

As a G.P. he noticed that milk-maids often caught cowpox, but afterwards never caught smallpox, and he correctly surmised that the former gave an immunity against the latter. He began experimenting, and the story of Blossom the cow, Sarah Nelmes the milkmaid and James Phipps the gardeners son, have gone down in history. Suffice to say that Master James had to patiently accept that his arms were experimental pin cushions. He was injected with a serum containing cow pox. Having been infected, he was then variolated against smallpox. Nothing happened. The experiment was repeated on a number of occasions, just to make sure that the immunity was permanent. It was also carried out on two dozen other human guinea pigs, before Jenner was ready to publish his findings. The result was a sensation, and a source of controversy which lasted for decades. Not everyone accepted Jenner’s ideas on vaccination – he was ridiculed and lampooned constantly, and it was years before his ideas on immunology were accepted. Defending his findings took up all his time, at the expense of his general practice, and in 1802 Parliament voted him a grant of £20,000, increased by another £10,000 once the Royal Society of Physicians accepted that his ideas on vaccination actually worked. He died aged 73 in 1823.

I rather like the Gillray caricature, published in 1802, showing contemporary fears that humans might start sprouting bovine appendages as a result of being immunised (shown courtesy of the Library of Congress).

j3Jenner is rightly remembered as the man whose work led to the entire eradication of a disease which had blighted the human race for thousands of years, scarring and killing millions. But I also like to remember him as a medico who had enough time on his hands – and enough interest in the world around him – to crouch in the hedgerows for hours at a time during the Spring, looking at the nesting habits of the humble cuckoo.

Rather more about the remarkable Dr Jenner appears in a fascinating book I bought a few years back by Professor Gareth Williams entitled ‘Angel of Death’, published by Palgrave Macmillan. I went to listen to the author  at the ‘Way with Words’ literary festival at Dartington three years ago – and he was the only one of a dozen speakers who had even the vaguest idea of how to present a talk using Powerpoint. The rest all read their scripts verbatim, or else believed that waving their arms around in the air, underlining their credibility as a TV “celebrity”, was enough to compensate for a poor delivery style.

My new book, ‘The Georgians in 100 facts’  will be published some time in August, by Amberley. It will be available direct from the publishers and on Amazon/as a Kindle book and I am looking to see if I get get a special promotion code, entitling readers of this blog to a discount on the price. Watch this space!


1 thought on “Edward Jenner, completely cuckoo! And news of a new book….”

  1. The story of Jenner and cowpox has been a bit questioned. It seems to have been known in the farming community that cowpox protected against smallpox, with the suggestion that it wasn’t an original observation of his. Whatever, the concept of “immunisation” against a disease was entirely new.

    There were some vocal people speaking out against vaccination. Cotton Mather, more famous for the Salem Witch trials, was one such. It seems that if smallpox was God’s work, man shouldn’t interfere. It seems a strange argument today, but a similar argument was used against anaesthesia, particularly in childbirth. However, as God caused “a great sleep” to fall on Adam when his rib made Eve, there were biblical grounds (!) for anaesthesia.

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