1902 Encyclopedia > Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner
English physician who pioneered vaccination
(1749-1823)




EDWARD JENNER (1749-1823), the discoverer of vaccination, was born at Berkeley, Gloucestershire, on May 17, 1749. His father, the Rev. Stephen Jenner, rector of Rockhampton and vicar of Berkeley, came of a family that had been long established in that country, and was possessed of considerable landed property; he died when the subject of this notice was only six years old, but his place was admirably taken by his eldest son, the Rev. Stephen Jenner, who brought his brother up with paternal care and tenderness.

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Edward Jenner


Edward received his early education in local schools at Wotton-under-edge and Cirencester, where he already showed a strong taste for natural history. The medical profession having been selected for him, he began his studies under Mr Ludlow, a surgeon of Sodbury near Bristol; but in his twenty-first year he proceeded to London, where he became a favourite pupil of the celebrated John Hunter, in whose house he resided for two years.

During this period he was employed by Sir Joseph Banks to arrange and prepare the valuable zoological specimens which he had brought back from Captain Cook’s first voyage in 1771. He must have acquitted himself satisfactorily in this task, since he was offered the post of naturalist in the second expedition, but declined it as well as other advantageous offers, preferring rather to practise his profession in his native place, and near his eldest brother, to whom he was much attached.

His speedy success in practice did not engross his intellectual activity. He was the principal founder of a local medical society, to which he contributed several papers of marked ability, in one of which he apparently anticipated later discoveries concerning the rheumatic inflammations of the heart. He maintained a correspondence with John Hunter, under whose direction he investigated various points in biology, particularly the hibernation of hedgehogs and the habits of the cuckoo; his paper on the latter subjects was laid by Hunter before the Royal Society, and appeared in the Philosophical Transactions for 1788. He also devoted considerable attention to the varied geological character of the district in which he lived, collecting fossils from the Oolite and Lias, and constructed the first balloon seen in those parts.

He was a great favourite in general society, from his agreeable and instructive conversation, and the many accomplishments he possessed. Thus he was a fair musician, both as a part-singer and as a performer on the violin and flute, and a very successful writer, after the fashion of that time, of fugitive pieces of verse, one of which -- " The Signs of Rain" -- has been frequently reprinted, and enumerates minutely all the signs of the weather in verse not unworthy of Crabbe.

In 1788 he married Catherine Kingscote, a union destined to form a most important element in his happiness. In 1792 he resolved to confine himself to practising as a physician, and accordingly obtained the degree of a doctor of medicine from St Andrews. Finding that Berkeley could not support a physician, he began, a few years later, to visit Cheltenham annually.

Meanwhile the discovery that was to immortalize his memory had been slowly maturing in his mind. When only an apprentice at Sodbury, his attention had been directed to the relations between cow-pox and small-pox in connexion with a popular belief which he found current in Gloucestershire, as to the antagonism between these two diseases.

During his stay in London he appears to have mentioned the thing repeatedly to Hunter, who, being engrossed by other important pursuits, was not strongly persuaded as Jenner was of its possible importance, yet spoke of it to his friends and in his lectures. After he began practice in Berkeley, Jenner was always accustomed to inquire what his professional brethren thought of it; but he found that, when medical men had noticed the popular report at all, they supposed it to be based on an imperfect induction of facts.





His first careful investigation of the subject dates from about 1775, and five years elapsed before he had succeeded in clearing away the most perplexing difficulties by which it was surrounded. He first satisfied himself that two different forms of disease had been hitherto confounded under the term "cow-pox," only one of which protected against small-pox, and that many of the cases of failure were to be thus accounted for; and his next step was to ascertain that the true cow-pox itself only protects when communicated at a particular stage of the disease. At the same time he came to the conclusion that "the grease" of horses is the same disease as cow-pox and small-pox, each being modified by the organism in which it was developed -- an opinion which is generally held at the present day.

For may years, cow-pox being scarce in his country, he had no opportunity of inoculating the disease, and so putting his discovery to the test, but he did all he could in the way of collecting information and communicating what he had ascertained. Thus in 1788 he carried a drawing of the cow-pox, as seen on the hands of a milkmaid, to London, and showed it to Sir E. Home and others, who agreed that it was "an interesting and curious subjects," but by no means realized its practical importance.

At length, on the 14th of May 1796, he was able to inoculate James Phipps, a boy about eight years old, with cow-pox matter. On the first of the following July the boy was carefully inoculated with variolous matter, but (as Jenner had predicted) no small-pox followed.

The discovery was now complete, but he desired to act without precipitation, and was unable to repeat his experiment until 1798, owing to the disappearance of cow-pox from the dairies. He then repeated his inoculations with the outmost care, and prepared a pamphlet which should announce his discovery to the world. Before punishing it, however, he thought it well to visit London, so as to demonstrate the truth of his assertions to his friends; but he remained in London nearly three months, without being able to find any person who would submit to be vaccinated. Soon after he returned home, however, Mr Cline, an eminent surgeon, inoculated some vaccine matter over the deceased hip-joint of a child, thinking the counter-irritation might be useful, and found the patient afterwards incapable of acquiring small-pox.

In the autumn of the same year, Jenner met with the first opposition to vaccination; and this was the more formidable because it preceeded from Dr Ingenhousz, a celebrated physician and man of science. But meanwhile Mr Cline’s case, and his advocacy of vaccination, brought it much decidedly before the medical profession, of whom the majority were prudent enough to suspend their judgment until they had more ample information.

But besides these were two noisy and troublesome factions, the one of which opposed vaccination as an useless and dangerous practice, while the other endangered its success much more by their rash and self-seeking advocacy. And the head of the latter was one Dr Pearson, who in November 1798 published a pamphlet speculating upon the subject, before even seeing a case of cow-pox, and afterwards endeavoured, by lecturing on the subject, and supplying the virus, to put himself forward as the chief agent in the cause. The matter which he distributed, which had been derived from cows that were found to be infected in London, was found frequently to produce, not the slight disease described by Jenner, but more or less severe eruptions resembling small-pox. Jenner concluded at once that this was due to an accidental contamination of the vaccine with variolous matter, and a visit to London in the spring of 1799 convinced him that this was the case.

In the course of this year the practice of vaccination spread over England, being urged principally by non-professional persons of position; and towards its close attempts were made to found institutions for gratuitous vaccination and for supplying lymph to all who might apply for it. Pearson proposed to establish one of these in London, without Jenner’s knowledge, in which he offered him the post of honorary corresponding physician! On learning this scheme to supplant him, and to carry on an institution for public vaccination on principles which he knew to be partly erroneous, Jenner once more visited London early in 1800, when he had influence enough to secure the abandonment of the project.

He was afterwards presented to the king, the queen, and the prince of Wales, whose encouragement materially aided the spread of vaccination in England.

Meanwhile it had made rapid progress in the United States, where it was introduced by Dr Waterhouse, the professor of physic at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and on the continent of Europe, where it was at first diffused by Dr de Carro of Vienna, who practiced it with the greatest zeal and discretion, and thence spread to Geneva. In consequence of the war between England and France, the discovery was later in reaching Paris; but, its importance once realized, it spread rapidly over France, Spain, and Italy.

It would be tedious and unprofitable to dwell minutely on the extension of vaccination over the whole world; but a few of the incidents connected with it are too remarkable to be omitted. Perhaps the most striking is the expedition which was sent out by the court of Spain in 1803, for the purpose of diffusing cow-pox through all the Spanish possessions in the Old and New Worlds, and which returned in three years, having circumnavigated the globe, and succeeded beyond its utmost expectations.

Many of the expressions of enthusiasm seem to us strained and almost ridiculous. Thus we read with surprise how clergymen in Geneva and Holland urged vaccination upon their parishioners from the pulpit; how Sicily, South America, and Naples religious processions were formed for the purpose of receiving it; how the anniversary of Jenner’s birthday, or of the successful vaccination of James Phipps, was for many years celebrated as a feast in Germany; and how the empress of Russia caused the first child operated upon to receive the name of "Vaccinoff," and to be educated at the public expense.

The truth is that we who live in that security from the horrible plague of small-pox from which we are indebted of Jenner’s immortal discovery cannot realize the greatness of the blessing he conferred upon mankind. The universal enthusiasm caused vaccination to spread over the whole world in the marvellously short period of six years, it being accepted with equal readiness by nations of the most diverse climes, habits, and religions.

About the close of the year 1801 Jenner’s friends in his native county of Gloucester presented him with a small service of plate as a testimonial of the esteem in which they held his discovery. This was intended merely as a preliminary to the presenting of a petition to Parliament for a grant. He was advised to apply for this, partly to obtain the formal approval of the highest court in this country for vaccination, but also for personal reasons. The premier, Mr Addington, approved fully of this step, and fixed the 17th of March 1802 for the presentation of his petition. Thus was referred to a committee, of which Admiral Berkeley, one of his warmest friends, was chairman, which examined carefully into the utility of vaccination, and Jenner’s claims to its discovery. The investigations of this committee resulted in a report in favour of the grant, and ultimately in a vote of £10,000.





Towards the end of 1802 steps were taken to form a society for the proper spread of vaccination in London, and the "Royal Jennerian Society" was finally established, Jenner returning to town (having retired to Berkeley for three months) to preside at the first meeting. This institution begun very prosperously, more than twelve thousand persons having been inoculated in the first eighteen months, and with such effect that the deaths from small-pox, which for the latter half of the last century had averaged 2018 annualy, fell, in 1804, to 622. Unfortunately the chief resident inoculator soon set himself up as an authority opposed to Dr Jenner, and this led to such dissensions as caused the society to die out in 1808.

Jenner was led, by the language of the chancellor of the exchequer when his grant was proposed, to attempt practice in London, but after a year’s trial he returned to Berkeley. His grant was not paid until 1804 and then, after the deduction of about £1000 for fees, it did little more than pay the expenses attendant upon his discovery. For he was so thoroughly known everywhere as the discoverer of vaccination, that the correspondence of the whole world on this subject was upon him. As he himself said, he was "the vaccine clerk of the whole world"; and, at the same time, he continue to vaccinate gratuitously all the poor who applied to him on certain days, so that he sometimes had as many as three hundred persons waiting at his door.

Meanwhile honours began to shower upon him from abroad: he was elected a member of almost all the chief scientific societies on the Continent, the first being that of Göttingen, where he was proposed by the illustrious Blumenbach. But perhaps the most flattering proof of his influence was derived from France. He endeavoured on several occasions to obtain the release of some of the unfortunate Englishmen who had been detained in France on the sudden termination of the peace of Amiens, but without success, until, in the case of two persons (Dr Williams, a Radcliffe travelling fellow, and a Mr Williams) he applied to the emperor Napoleon himself. It was on this or some such occasion (for he afterwards repeated his intercession) that Napoleon was about to reject the petition, when Josephine uttered the name of Jenner. The emperor paused and exclaimed -- "Ah, we can refuse nothing to that name." Somewhat later he was of the same service to Englishmen confined in Mexico and in Austria; and during the latter part of the great war persons before leaving England would sometimes obtain certificates signed by him which served as passports.

In his own country his merits were less recognized. His applications on behalf of French prisoners in England were less successful; he would never share in any of the patronage at the disposal of the Government, and was even unable to obtain a living for his nephew George.

In 1806 Lord Henry Petty (afterwards the marquis of Lansdowne) became chancellor of the exchequer, and was so convinced of the inadequacy of that former parliamentary grant that he proposed an address to the crown, praying that the college of physicians should be directed to report upon the success of vaccination. Their report being strongly in its favour, the then chancellor of the exchequer (Mr Spencer Perceval) proposed that a sum of £10,000 without any charge for fee or reward should be paid to Dr Jenner. The anti-vaccinationists found but one advocate in the House of Commons; and finally the sum was raised to £20,000. Jenner, however, at the same time had the mortification of learning that Government did not intend to take any steps towards checking small-pox inoculation, which so persistently kept up that disease. About the same time a subscription for his benefit was begun in India, where his discovery had been gratefully received, but the full amount of this (£7383) only reached him in 1812.

The Royal Jennerian Society having failed, the National Vaccine Establishment was founded, for the extension of vaccination, in 1808. Jenner spent five months in London for the purpose of organizing it, but was then obliged, by the dangerous illness of one of his sons, to return to Berkeley. He had been appointed director of the institution; but he had no sooner left London than Sir Lucas Pepys, the president of the college of physicians, neglected his recommendations, and formed the board out of the officials of that college and the college of surgeons. Jenner at once resigned his post as director, though he continued to give the benefit of his advice whenever it was needed, and this resignation was a bitter mortification to him. In 1810 his eldest son died, and Jenner’s grief at his loss, and his incessant labours, materially affected his health. In the following year he happened to be in London when the town was much excited by the case of Lord Grosvenor’s children, who took the small-pox severely, after having been vaccinated by Jenner himself ten years before. The boy’s recovery was no doubt to be ascribed to his vaccination, but the occurrence revived for a time all the clamour with which the discovery had been from the first greeted.

In 1813 the university of Oxford conferred on Jenner the degree of M.D. It was believed that this would lead to his election into the college of physicians, but that learned that he could not be admitted until he had undergone an examination in classics. This Jenner at once refused; to brush up his classics would, he said, "be irksome beyond measure. I would not do it for a diadem. That indeed would be a bauble; I would not do it for John Hunter’s museum."

He visited London for the last time in 1814, when he was presented to the allied sovereigns, and to most of the principal personages that accompanied them. In the next years his wife died after a long illness, and he felt her loss most acutely. It was the signal for him to retire from public life: he never left Berkeley again, except for a day or two, as long as he lived.

He found sufficient occupation for the reminder of his life in collecting further evidence on some points connected with his great discovery, and in his engagements as a physician, a naturalist, and a magistrate.

In 1818 a severe epidemic of small-pox prevailed, a fresh doubts were thrown on the efficacy of vaccination, in part, apparently, owing to the bad quality of the vaccine lymph employed. This caused Jenner much annoyance, which was relieved by an able defence of the practice, written by Sir Gilbert Blane. But this led him, in 1821, to send a circular letter to most of the medical men in the kingdom into the effect of other skin diseases in modifying the progress of cow-pox.

A year later he published his last work, On the Influence of Artificial Eruptions in certain Diseases; and in 1823 he presented his last paper -- "On the Migration of Birds" -- to the Royal Society. In these pursuits the evening of his days passed happily away. On the 24th of January 1823 he retired to rest apparently as well as usual, and next morning rose and came down to his library, where he was found insensible on the floor, in a state of apoplexy, and with the right side paralysed. He never rallied, and died the following morning January 26, 1823.

A public subscription was set on foot, shortly after his death, by the medical men of his country, for the purpose of erecting some memorial in his honour, and with much difficulty a sufficient sum was raised to enable a statue to be placed in Gloucester cathedral. In 1850 another attempt was made to set up a monument to him; this appears to have failed, but at length, in 1858, a statue of him was erected by public subscription in London.

Independently of that great discovery which will for ever render his name immortal, Jenner possessed talents of observation and reflexion that would have made him eminent as a naturalist and a physician. These qualities would have been more widely appreciated had not this tastes for rural scenes and domestic life led him to sacrifice such fame is to be gained only amid the busy throng of men. This resolution was strengthened by his love for the simple pleasures of society, for which his varied accomplishments so well fitted him; indeed, there can be little doubt that he would never have had the perseverance to carry through his great discovery of vaccination had not his earnest benevolence pressed it on him, as a duty, to confer such a great and permanent benefit on the whole human race.

Jenner’s life was written by the intimate friend of his later years, Dr Baron of Gloucester (2 vol. 1827, 1827, 1838), and this excellent work is almost the sole source from which the present and other biographies of him have been taken. (J. R. G.*)



The above article was written by J. Raymond Gasquet, M.D.; author of various articles in the Journal of Medical Science, etc.





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