Edward Jenner – The man who changed life on Earth

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | February 26, 2014 0

Dr Edward Jenner 1749


Who is the Briton who most changed the world?  We need to put Edward Jenner, the Gloucestershire doctor who discovered vaccination in the quiet rural town of Berkeley on the banks of the Severn Estuary  in Gloucestershire, right up there as a prime candidate. He was a true child of the Enlightenment and a product of the free-thinking, inquisitive culture of late 18th Century England. His experiments with cowpox would have been illegal today, and had him harried by the popular newspapers for child cruelty – for he deliberately infected a young labourer’s son, James Phipps with cowpox and then with smallpox.

Nor did he try to repeat the experiment, or use normal controls, as any modern scientist would. He just published – a treatise which proved almost instantly popular, being read out at dinner parties and admired by foreigners as diverse as Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon and the Russian Czar. Smallpox had been one of the great scourges of the human race, a disfigurer and a huge killer, particularly of children. Jenner’s breakthrough meant it was eventually eradicated – and the United Nations declared it had gone in 1980.

jenner statue

We can plausibly claim that Jenner saved more human lives than any other person in history, and that on this basis he is surely a candidate for greatest Briton. And it all happened in the sleepy, green, rolling backwaters of Gloucestershire, still a great place for a stroll. It was from his house here in 1796 that Edward Jenner pioneered a vaccination against smallpox and it changed the world. During his life he was also fascinated by geology, ballooning, poetry and natural history.


His house is called the Chantry and has been well preserved with its restored gardens and has a real sense of time and place. The Chantry was Edward Jenner’s home from 1785 until his death in 1823. It was here that Edward Jenner first took a sample of cowpox from a local milkmaid and inoculated his gardener’s son, James Phipps, with the pus – vaccinating him against smallpox. The museum houses an impressive exhibition of not only Jenner’s own artefacts – from his original surgical instruments, to the books that once laid upon his desk – it is also a shrine to the history and hurdles of vaccination, and the basis of it all: immunology.


Jenner’s house at Church Lane Berkeley which now houses the Jenner Museum

It has a nice shop and a small but totally excellent tearoom featuring local produce. But on the beautiful summer’s day when we were there (Oh, of blessed memory!) the historic setting was greatly enhanced by a play in the grounds. A one man play that is of an actor in full redcoat regalia recreating the ebb and flow of the Battle of Waterloo in one hour. In summary Napoleon nearly had it, was too timid and anyway was as sick as a chien while directing the battle, it went on for too long and Blucher and the Prussians for once didn’t arrive on time but when they got there saved the Day!! Phew! It was according to Wellington “a damm close thing”, the British Empire was saved and Nappy went off on a one way ticket to St. Helena having abused his previous position as Emperor of Elba. I can honestly say it was a wonderful time under the shade of an awning in this timeless setting and the most entertaining hours theatre I’ve ever experienced. There again, I always enjoy the tale of how an Irishman saved the British Empire and can I point our his brother Richard Wellesley was responsible for the Jewel in its Crown as he founded the British Raj in India?Dr Jenners Garden2


It was looking dodgy and then the Prussians arrived!! – The Battle of Waterloo in one hour


It is important that the health transformations achieved through vaccination, sound science and mass immunisation are soundly defended  from all the silly irrational comments from the self appointed quacks on the internet who tout their conspiracy theories about vaccines being poisons which pollute the body and they are going to live forever because they are Vegan, drink magic juice, can channel positive energy, crystals or can achieve balance through massage / moving furniture / herbal tea and so on.

Dr Jenners Garden

What they have in common is a complete lack of understanding of how vaccination works. Vaccination works in two ways, it build up individual resistance to disease and reduces the incidence of disease and the risk of infection in the general population. So the flu vaccination helps (no guarantee) to stop you getting the flu but also reduces the incidence (and the possibility of infection) in the general population – less flu cases in total less risk of the critical mass needed for an epidemic.

I can only assume these inane discussions about the “danger” of Vaccination occur because people have forgotten the terrible toll of smallpox, typhus, polio, tuberculosis, etc;. Indeed I remember helping with the Irish Wheelchair Association in Clontarf in Dublin and seeing the terrible cruel havoc Polio inflicted on young people not so long ago. Edward Jenner transformed human existence with the invention of the smallpox vaccine in the 18th Century so there has been enough time for even the slowest to catch up but that’s the internet – evey nutter has his / her day!


The implausibly historic Berkeley Castle, from which the village is named,  backs on to Dr Jenner’s garden. The impressive castle, which dates back to the 11th Century, is still inhabited by descendants of its original owner Robert Fitzharding, and houses everything from suits of armour to Queen Elizabeth’s gilded quilt. Despite references in Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II (c. 1592) to the Impalement of Edward II by a red hot poker thrust into his anus this has no basis in accounts recorded by Edward’s contemporaries. Edward II’s death, generally believed to be murder by suffocation at the hands of an agent of his wife Isabella on 11 October 1327 in Berkeley Castle.

A dark period in English history in a Medieval world of superstition, fantasy and mortality after short wretched lives. A huge contrast with the Age of Enlightenment  and the greatness of Edward Jenner’s discovery of  vaccination which has literally brought so much good and life into this world.



Berkeley Castle from the south

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