Jenner administers 1st Vaccine against Smallpox

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Jenner administers 1st Vaccine against Smallpox

Berkeley, Gloucestershire The 14th of May 1796 AD

Smallpox in the 18th century and earlier was a massive killer, capable of wiping out whole families, whole villages even, with the greatest danger faced by children and the elderly. Those who survived it were left with disfiguring scars, and sometimes with blindness. Country doctor Edward Jenner working on his own devised a method of combating the disease that eventually led to its total worldwide eradication by 1980.

The concept of inoculation with liquid from smallpox sores, or even with powdered smallpox scabs, had been known for centuries, the Chinese being credited with devising the technique. The intention was to identify milder cases of the illness to provide the material for inoculation. It was hoped the patient inoculated would develop and overcome the disease, and thereafter be immune, but there were dangers associated with this course of action. Firstly, some recipients developed a bad case and died. Secondly, while the recipient of the inoculation developed and overcame smallpox they were carriers, capable of infecting those with whom they came in contact.

Jenner’s practice was a rural one, in cattle farming country, and he was aware of the belief that those who caught cowpox, a disease with some similarities to smallpox, never contracted smallpox. Cowpox sufferers had to endure some aches and pains and a few pustules, but it passed in days and was an inconvenience rather than a danger.

With a boldness unimaginable in modern medicine Jenner carried out an experiment that proved to him, and eventually to others, that cowpox could be used to inoculate against smallpox. A milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, visited Doctor Jenner on May 14 1796 with sores on her hands that he knew were a symptom of cowpox. Jenner took liquid from Sarah’s sores, and persuaded a local farmer called Phipps to allow him to infect the farmer’s son, eight-year-old James, with cowpox using that liquid, that he promised would make the boy immune from smallpox for life.

James developed and overcame cowpox, and then incredibly, again with the permission of farmer Phipps, some six weeks later Jenner introduced liquid from smallpox sores to a small cut on the boy’s arm. James showed no signs of smallpox, and a major step in preventative medicine had been taken – Jenner had produced what he called a vaccine (from the Latin root vacca, cow).

When Jenner presented his findings to the Royal Society the following year they evinced no comment, being regarded as merely preliminary, and the country doctor had to publish and publicize his work himself, but eventually his breakthrough was recognized, with Parliament providing him with the enormous sum of £30,000 to continue his work. Vaccination spread rapidly through Britain and its colonies, and deaths from smallpox plummeted.

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