Who Was Edward Jenner?

Alexandrea Dillon, Katy Metzler
  • Author
    Alexandrea Dillon

    Alexandrea has taught secondary science for over six years. She has a bachelors degree in Teaching Secondary Science and a Masters of Education in Instructional Design. She's TESOL certified and a National Geographic Certified Educator. In addition, she was the spotlight educator for National Geographic in late 2019.

  • Instructor
    Katy Metzler

    Katy teaches biology at the college level and did her Ph.D. work on infectious diseases and immunology.

Learn who Edward Jenner is. Discover the history of Edward Jenner and how he created the smallpox vaccine, and learn about the results of immunization. Updated: 02/24/2022

Table of Contents


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
  • Geology
  • 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.

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  • 0:01 Smallpox
  • 0:38 History
  • 1:34 Early Immunity to Smallpox
  • 2:53 Edward Jenner's…
  • 4:30 Results of Smallpox…
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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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.

Smallpox was a result of the variola virus. This worldwide illness changed the face of human societies for centuries before its eradication through vaccination.

Globe wearing a mask

Early Immunity

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

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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