E. Jenner’s Discovery of Smallpox Vaccine: How It Happened

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Edward Jenner (1749-1823), often referred to as the Father of Immunology, was an English physician most noted for the discovery of the smallpox vaccine, the world’s earliest vaccination. Born to a reverend, Jenner had an upbringing that emphasized the importance of education. At the tender age of 13, he was working as an apprentice to a physician where he learned much of his surgical skills (Magner, 2015, p. 370). Although earning a medical degree from a university in a populous city, Jenner settled into a London practice in the country-side.

Smallpox, an infectious disease, was extremely dangerous and deadly during the time of Jenner. The origin of smallpox is unknown, though it has been speculated by epidemiologist that it “might have evolved from one of the poxviruses of wild or domesticated animals” (Magner, 2015, p. 362). The uniqueness and powerfulness of the smallpox disease made it potent enemy in the eighteenth century. According to Magner (2015) smallpox was different from many other viruses because it could live outside its host and remains infectious over extended periods of time (p. 363). It may be these very factors that contributed so largely to the numerous smallpox epidemics that plagued the eighteenth century, and it wouldn’t be until the latter part of this period that Edward Jenner would start experimenting with a vaccination to provide immunity against this debilitating and rampant disease.

In 1796, Jenner would take advice from his dear friend John Hunter and began experimenting with ways to cure people of this virus. During his observation, Jenner noted that the manifestations (or symptoms) of cowpox, a less severe viral disease, was similar to that of smallpox. He also came to discover that people who endured cowpox, a less severe virus, did not contract smallpox. In one of his many publications, Jenner explained the process of transmission for cowpox, “One of the former having been appointed to apply dressings to the heels of a horse affected with the grease, and not paying due attention to cleanliness, incautiously bears his part in milking the cows, with some particles of the infectious matter adhering to his fingers. When this is the case, it commonly happens that a disease is communicated to the cows, and from the cows to the dairymaids, which spreads through the farm until the most of the cattle and domestics feel its unpleasant consequences” (“A Continuation of Facts and Observations Relative to the Various Vaccines, or Cow-Pox, 1800,” 1796, para. 3). He goes on to describe the symptoms that those infected with this disease begin to exhibit, including circular lesions appearing on the hands and arms, tachycardia, vomiting, shivering, and headaches. It would be the lesions produced by this disease that would serve as a vaccination against it. In order to confirm his theory that those who had previously been infected with cowpox disease would acquire immunity from smallpox, Jenner inoculated James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy, with matter taken from the lesions of a milkmaid infected with cowpox. Though Phipps would experience slight symptoms of discomfort and fever, he would completely recover. Jenner would later infect this same boy with fluids from a smallpox lesion and get the same results, mild discomfort but recovery days later. As an article appearing in The British Heritage put it, “The world and its peoples” were declared free of endemic smallpox by the World Health Assembly in 198()—in large part thanks to Edward Jenner” (“Edward Jenner: Founder of Immunology, 2008, p. 65).

It is important to note here that while Edward Jenner is famed the “Father of Immunology” for his contribution to medicine through the discovery of the smallpox vaccine, there are other figures whom preceded him that also made positive and noteworthy discoveries about smallpox and inoculation, including Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Reverend Cotton Mather. Magner (2015) sums up Lady Montagu’s role in advancing towards eradicating the smallpox epidemic: “Credit for transforming the so-called Turkish method of inoculation from a curious ‘heathen custom’ into a fashionable practice among the English elite…” (p. 364). During her trip to Turkey, Lady Montagu observed the practice of variolation in which numerous people sharing a common household were inoculated with the smallpox virus itself, and completely recovered from it after experiencing fever for several days. Lady Montagu would advocate for this procedure upon her return to England, though she faced resistance from numerous physicians.

Reverend Cotton Mather, another advocate for smallpox inoculation, first became intrigued by the procedure when he learned of his slave being inoculated with a mild form of the disease which served to protect him from the more harsh form of it. Mather would go on to successfully inoculate several people and prove the effectiveness of the procedure; but much like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, he, too, would face much resistance from those in the medical field.

Though smallpox inoculation proved to be an efficient and successful practice, Jennerian vaccination using cowpox (seen as a weaker form of the smallpox virus) was a safer method for achieving immunization from the deadly epidemic, smallpox.

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