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Edward Jenner
1749 – 1823


Edward Jenner was a British family doctor who practiced throughout his life in the village of Berkeley, Gloucestershire. He apprenticed for two years with John Hunter, then the preeminent medical teacher in Britain, but never took any examinations to obtain a medical degree. Instead, he purchased a medical degree from a Scottish university and later applied for and was granted an M.D. degree from Oxford University. He was keenly interested in all aspects of natural history, and he wrote a notebook describing the habits and habitats of birds in his district. A man with considerable intellectual and leadership qualities, he also founded a local medical society that survived for many generations.

At the time of Jenner's birth, smallpox was an ever present threat to life and health. When it did not kill outright, it often left a legacy of disfiguring facial pockmarks, and if it affected the eyes it caused blindness.

The practice of variolation—inoculation into the skin, or insufflation into the nose, of dried secretions from a smallpox bleb—was invented in China around 1000 C.E. and spread along the silk route, reaching Asia Minor some time in the seventeenth century. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, described the practice, also called ingrafting, in a letter to her friend Sarah Chiswell dated April 1, 1717, and imported the idea to England when she returned home. By the time Jenner was a child, ingrafting had become widespread among educated English families as a way to provide some protection against smallpox. If virulent smallpox virus had happened to survive in the batch of secretions used, however, the procedure sometimes caused severe illness and even occasional fatalities. This was generally considered to be a risk worth taking, as it was substantially less than the risk of death or disfigurement posed by epidemic smallpox itself.

Jenner knew the popular belief in Gloucestershire that people who had been infected with cowpox, a mild disease acquired from cattle, did not get smallpox. He reasoned that since smallpox in mild form was transmitted by variolation, it might be possible to similarly transmit cowpox. He made many observations, starting in 1778, and a smallpox outbreak in 1792 provided him with the opportunity to confirm his belief that persons previously infected with cowpox did not get smallpox. In 1796 he began a courageous and unprecedented experiment—one that by modern standards would be considered unethical—that would have an incalculable benefit for humankind. He inoculated a boy, James Phipps, with secretions from a cowpox lesion. Over the following months he inoculated others, most of them children, inoculating twenty-three in all. They all survived unharmed, and none got smallpox. In 1798, Jenner published his results in An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae. His findings rank among the most important medical discoveries of all time.

The importance of Jenner's work was immediately recognized, and although there were skeptics and vicious antagonists, vaccination programs soon began. At first, these programs were conducted more vigorously in some European nations than in Britain. In 1802, Jenner was rewarded by Parliament with a grant of 10,000, and in 1807 with a further 20,000, but he was not otherwise honored in his own country. In France and other European nations, however, his achievement was more suitably commemorated.

In due course, Jenner's discovery led to a successful campaign by the World Health Organization to eradicate smallpox. In 1980, the World Health Assembly proclaimed that smallpox, one of the most deadly scourges of mankind, had been eradicated. At the beginning of the new millennium, samples of the smallpox virus survive in secure biological laboratories in several countries, but thanks to Edward Jenner, this terrible disease need never again take a human life.


The English physician Edward Jenner (1749-1823) introduced vaccination against smallpox and thus laid the foundation of modern concepts of immunology.

Edward Jenner was born on May 17, 1749, in the village of Berkeley in Gloucestershire. At 8 his schooling began at Wooton-under-Edge and was continued in Cirencester. At 13 he was apprenticed to Daniel Ludlow, a surgeon, in Sodbury. In 1770 Jenner went to London to study with the renowned surgeon, anatomist, and naturalist John Hunter, returning to his native Berkeley in 1773.

Jenner had been interested in nature as a child, and this interest expanded under Hunter's guidance. For example, in 1771 the young physician arranged the zoological specimens gathered during Capt. James Cook's voyage of discovery to the Pacific. His thorough work led to his being recommended for the position of naturalist on the second Cook voyage, but he declined in favor of a medical career. Jenner aided in Hunter's zoological studies in many ways during his few years in London and then from Berkeley. Hunter's experimental methods, insistence on exact observation, and general encouragement are reflected in this work in natural history but are especially apparent in Jenner's introduction of vaccination.

In Eastern countries the practice of inoculation against smallpox with matter taken from a smallpox pustule was common. This practice was introduced into England in the early 18th century. Although such inoculation aided in the prevention of the dreaded and widespread disease, it was dangerous. There was a common story among farmers that if a person contracted a relatively mild and harmless disease of cattle called cowpox, immunity to smallpox would result. Jenner first heard this story while apprenticed to Ludlow, and when he went to London he discussed the possibilities of such immunity at length with Hunter. Hunter encouraged him to make further observations and experiments, and when Jenner returned to Berkeley he continued his observations for many years until he was fully convinced that cowpox did, in fact, confer immunity to smallpox. On May 14, 1796, he vaccinated a young boy with cowpox material taken from a pustule on the hand of a dairymaid who had contracted the disease from a cow. The boy suffered the usual mild symptoms of cowpox and quickly recovered. A few weeks later the boy was inoculated with smallpox matter and suffered no ill effects.

In June 1798 Jenner published An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly in Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of the Cowpox. In 1799 Further Observations on the Variolae Vaccinae or Cowpox appeared and, in 1800, A Continuation of Facts and Observations Relative to the Variolae Vaccinae, or Cowpox. The reception of Jenner's ideas was a little slow, but official recognition came from the British government in 1800. For the rest of his life Jenner worked consistently for the establishment of vaccination. These years were marred only by the death in 1815 of his wife, Catherine Kingscote Jenner, whom he had married in 1788. Jenner died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Berkeley on Jan. 26, 1823.











This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008