With all the debate still going on about whether to vaccinate or not for COVID-19 and all the variants in the news, I thought we might have look at the first vaccines.
Born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, in May 1749, the eighth of nine children, Edward Jenner held a natural curiosity about science. In fact, he apprenticed with a country surgeon and apothecary, Daniel Ludlow, near Bristol as early as age 13. Reportedly, he learned something of smallpox there. Familiar with country lore in either heard the tales of milk maids and cowpox or he observed the effect. Either way, Jenner, like many others in the area, held the belief that milk maids who caught cowpox never contracted smallpox.
Working with George Harwicke, Jenner learned much of surgery and sound medical practice. When he finished his apprenticeship at age one and twenty, he travelled to London where he again became a “student” for another two years — this time of one John Hunter, who was on the St. George Hospital’s staff. This move was providential for Jenner, for, at the time, Hunter was one of the most famous surgeons in England. Moreover, Hunter had a mind for biology and anatomy, like no other of the time.
Beyond learning from Hunter, “… Jenner made important contacts such as Joseph Banks, later president of the Royal Society, and Everard Home and Henry Cline, both later presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons. Hunter, a stern taskmaster, evidently thought well of Jenner and recommended that he should help to arrange and catalogue the specimens brought back by Banks from Captain Cook’s first Pacific voyage. It was planned that Jenner should accompany Banks on the second voyage, but in the event neither went.” [Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]
“Jenner occupied himself with many matters. He studied geology and carried out experiments on human blood. In 1784, after public demonstrations of hot air and hydrogen balloons by Joseph M. Montgolfier in France during the preceding year, Jenner built and twice launched his own hydrogen balloon. It flew 12 miles. Following Hunter’s suggestions, Jenner conducted a particular study of the cuckoo. The final version of Jenner’s paper was published in 1788 and included the original observation that it is the cuckoo hatchling that evicts the eggs and chicks of the foster parents from the nest. For this remarkable work, Jenner was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. However, many naturalists in England dismissed his work as pure nonsense. For more than a century, antivaccinationists used the supposed defects of the cuckoo study to cast doubt on Jenner’s other work. Jenner was finally vindicated in 1921 when photography confirmed his observation. At any rate, it is apparent that Jenner had a lifelong interest in natural sciences. His last work, published posthumously, was on the migration of birds.” [NCBI]
It was 1796 before Jenner made his first forays into eradicating smallpox, which had a long history of killing off large populations. In May of that same year, Jenner conducted his first experiments with cowpox and smallpox. A milk maid by the name of Sarah Nelms had fresh cowpox lesions on her hands. Jenner proposed to “spread” the cowpox to protect people from smallpox. His first patient to receive the inoculation was an eight-year-old boy by the name of James Phipps. He first presented the boy with the cowpox. The child had a mild fever, aches, and some stomach discomfort. When he started feeling better, Jenner inoculated the boy a second time. He used matter from a fresh smallpox lesion. No infection occurred.
As a side note, during the Revolutionary War, the British troops were less likely to get smallpox. That was because smallpox was endemic in England, meaning that a high percentage of British troops had already contracted the disease as children and now carried lifelong immunity. In contrast only about 20-30 % of the Americans had been exposed to the disease. “But immunization in the 1770s was not what it’s like today with a single injection and a low risk of mild symptoms. Edward Jenner didn’t even develop his revolutionary cowpox-based vaccine for smallpox until 1796. The best inoculation technique at Washington’s disposal during the Revolutionary War was a nasty and sometimes fatal method called ‘variolation.’
““An inoculation doctor would cut an incision in the flesh of the person being inoculated and implant a thread laced with live pustular matter into the wound…. ‘The hope and intent was for the person to come down with smallpox. When smallpox was conveyed in that fashion, it was usually a milder case than it was when it was contracted in the natural way.'” [History.com]
Jenner’s first foray into experiments was rejected by the Royal Society, but, after he added additional observations and experiments, he privately published a small booklet entitled “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Varilae Vaccinae, a disease discovered in some of the western counties of England, particularly Gloucestershire and Known by the Now of Cow Pox.” He presented his technique the name of “vaccination,” one which has obviously stuck.
For Jenner, few in London were willing to be his next “guinea pigs.” It was the work of the surgeon Henry Cline and Doctors George Pearson and William Woodville that finally confirmed Jenner’s speculations.