Who is Edward Jenner?
Edward Jenner was an important scientist who was the first to scientifically test smallpox vaccination using cowpox material. He was born as the eighth in a family of nine children on the 17th of May, 1749. He was born in Gloucestershire. Both of his parents died in 1754. When he was 14, Edward Jenner apprenticed with the surgeon Daniel Ludlow for seven years and then continued to study medicine at St. George's Hospital in London under John Hunter. John Hunter was a renowned scientist and surgeon who quickly ascertained Edward Jenner's exceptional scientific abilities. The two remained lifelong friends.
At the age of 23, Edward Jenner returned to his hometown in Gloucestershire and hung out his shingle as a local doctor and surgeon. He married Catherine Kingscote on the 6th of March, 1788. After he came to prominence, he also had practices in London and Cheltenham, but he lived the rest of his life primarily in Gloucestershire. Throughout his life, Edward Jenner studied many types of science. An incomplete list can be found here:
- Biology, particularly the behavior and migration patterns of birds
- Human histology
- Medicine, particularly vaccinations and general practice
Edward Jenner became interested in the old wives' tales of milkmaids being unable to contract smallpox due to his own experiences with the smallpox virus, which will be further detailed later in this lesson. Edward Jenner began his incredibly important research, which eventually led to the first truly scientific studies into smallpox and vaccination.
History of Smallpox
Smallpox was a contagious disease caused by the variola virus, resulting in a fever and a progressive skin rash that caused small blisters. This disease plagued humanity for thousands of years, with some scientists estimating it emerged from Northern Africa approximately 10,000 years ago. Three out of every 10 people that contracted the illness died, for a fatality rate of approximately 30%. Communities that were struck simultaneously by smallpox and another concern, like famine, often had even higher rates of mortality. Children were particularly susceptible to this virus and had a higher mortality rate as well.
Smallpox played a major role in shaping human society. As explorers from Europe and Asia explored the New World in North America and South America, they inadvertently introduced the variola virus to the population. These populations had absolutely no prior immunity, and it decimated their population. The indigenous populations of Aztec and Inca peoples were almost completely wiped out by smallpox introduced by Spanish conquistadors and other explorers.
Thankfully, a vaccine was developed and completely eradicated smallpox from the face of the Earth. People are no longer vaccinated for smallpox because the disease doesn't exist outside of closely guarded laboratories. During the 1950s to the 1970s, the most successful vaccination campaign ever implemented occurred. The last naturally occurring outbreak in America happened in 1949. The last documented case of smallpox was in 1977, and it was declared truly eradicated in 1980.
The start of the 18th century saw approximately 300,000 European people dying from smallpox every single year. One in seven African children died of smallpox before reaching maturity. As a young boy, Edward Jenner was variolated for smallpox. Variolation was a common practice for children at the time. It involved purposefully exposing a child or adult to a mild form of smallpox so they would develop immunity to more serious and fatal strains. There were pros to this method, in that one became much less likely to die of smallpox. However, variolation resulted in lifelong negative health consequences. The negative lifelong consequences Edward Jenner experienced from variolation, paired with his keen scientific mind, led him to research smallpox.
What did Edward Jenner do about this problem? He decided to investigate old wives' tales that milkmaids didn't contract smallpox due to having previously contracted cowpox. His research discovered that many milkmaids contracted cowpox from contact with their cows' udders and other bodily fluids as part of their daily work. He discovered that it did indeed protect against smallpox. Cowpox is a very mild illness that results in uncomfortable sores but no other symptoms. It is a zoonotic virus, meaning it is transmissible between humans and animals. Scientists now know that cowpox and smallpox viruses are similar enough that antibodies developed for a cowpox infection also protected against future smallpox infections.
Edward Jenner decided to conduct a scientific experiment based on this information. On the 14th of May, 1796, Edward Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps. He scratched a cowpox blister into his skin. James Phipps contracted cowpox. On the 1st of July, 1796, Edward Jenner attempted to variolate James Phipps with mild smallpox matter, but no disease occurred. This was revolutionary because cowpox was so much less severe than variolation and clearly provided protection.
After a few years, doctors around the country switched from variolation to vaccinating with cowpox. This resulted in more positive outcomes for the children that were vaccinated in this way. The word vaccination is derived from this experiment, due to its excellent results and overall importance. Vacca is the Latin word for cow.
Edward Jenner: Vaccination
After the initial vaccination test was proved successful, nobody volunteered to be vaccinated using cowpox. It took several years for doctors and surgeons around the country to believe this information was the truth. Edward Jenner was so impassioned that he built a small cottage in his back garden, providing vaccines to poor people free of charge. He called it the Temple of Vaccinia. His work was politically charged at the time, just as vaccinations are today. Some people believed him to be saving children worldwide (which he was), and others believed that he wanted to infect children with dirty diseases for no reason. This controversy continued for some time, but as evidence supporting Jenner's vaccination began to mount, doctors eventually began vaccinating with smallpox throughout the country.
Smallpox was a contagious disease caused by the variola virus, resulting in a fever and a progressive skin rash characterized by blisters. Three out of every ten people that contracted the illness died, for a fatality rate of approximately 30%. Children were particularly susceptible to this virus and had a higher mortality rate as well. Edward Jenner was an important scientist who was the first to scientifically test smallpox vaccination using cowpox material. He decided to investigate the old wives' tale that milkmaids didn't contract smallpox due to having previously contracted cowpox. Cowpox is a very mild illness that results in uncomfortable sores but no other symptoms. Cowpox did protect against smallpox. Cowpox is a zoonotic virus, meaning it is transmissible between humans and animals. Scientists now know that cowpox and smallpox viruses are similar enough that antibodies developed for a cowpox infection also provided protection against future smallpox infections. The word vaccination is derived from this experiment, due to its excellent results and importance. Vacca is the Latin word for cow.
As is common with vaccinations today, Edward Jenner's work was considered controversial at the time. On the 14th of May, 1796, Edward Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy. His name was James Phipps. Jenner scratched a cowpox blister into his skin. James Phipps contracted cowpox. On the 1st of July, 1796, Edward Jenner attempted to variolate James Phipps with mild smallpox matter, but no disease occurred. This was revolutionary because cowpox was significantly less severe than variolation and clearly provided protection. However, after this experiment was successful, nobody wanted to participate in future experiments. As a result, Edward Jenner built a small cottage in his back garden, providing vaccines to poor people free of charge. He called it the Temple of Vaccinia. Smallpox was declared eradicated from the human population in 1980 after a very successful campaign of more modern vaccinations.
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How did Edward Jenner discover the vaccine for smallpox?
Edward Jenner conducted the first vaccination experiment in 1796, by vaccinating an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, with cowpox. Phipps was later found to be immune to smallpox.
What was Edward Jenner's theory?
Edward Jenner investigated the old wives' tale that dairymaids didn't contract smallpox because they'd already been exposed to cowpox. He wanted to understand why. His theory was that exposure to cowpox could result in protection from deadly smallpox strains.
How did Edward Jenner cure smallpox?
Edward Jenner did not cure smallpox. This happened much later, as the disease wasn't eradicated for almost another 200 years. However, he did develop the first vaccine for smallpox.
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