The Country Doctor
When Edward Jenner began his apprenticeship to a surgeon at the age of 14, smallpox was ravaging Europe. By the 1790s, as much as half of the English population had been exposed to smallpox, and a third of those would die from it.
As a country doctor in Gloucestershire, Jenner drew on local lore that milkmaids who had contracted the relatively benign cowpox were immune to smallpox. He decided to test the belief by developing a smallpox inoculation made of cowpox. On May 14, 1796, he administered the inoculation to James Phipps, the 8-year-old son of Jenner’s gardener. It worked.
Jenner reported his findings to the Royal Society, but his paper was rejected on the basis that more data was needed. He then successfully inoculated 22 more subjects, and after submitting results from all 23 experiments to the Royal Society, he was again snubbed. Undeterred, in 1798 Jenner published a booklet himself containing all of his smallpox research. He called his new procedure "vaccination."
Jenner was widely ridiculed by the medical establishment and met with strong resistance from the English public. But he dedicated his life to smallpox education and treatment around the world.
After publishing his booklet, Jenner was widely ridiculed by the medical establishment and met with strong resistance from the English public. From that point forward, he dedicated the rest of his life to smallpox education and treatment around the world.
With his own resources, he developed techniques for making vaccine material that could be easily transported and stored, and he shared his work with anyone who showed an interest, often shipping vaccines at his own expense.
By 1800, the vaccine was available in most European countries, and during his lifetime it was disseminated in China, Russia, the Philippines, and the U.S. Napoleon ensured that all of his troops were vaccinated and, in 1804, awarded Jenner with a special medal of honor. At the time, France was at war with Britain.
Until the end of his life, Jenner vaccinated people for free at his home. Thirty years after his death, smallpox vaccination finally became compulsory in Britain.
Until the end of his life, Jenner continued to vaccinate people for free at his home. At the time of his death in 1823, his vaccine had been adopted by many English physicians, though another thirty years would pass before it was compulsory in Britain.
Smallpox continued its devastation. Finally, in 1967, the World Health Organization undertook a massive program to eradicate it. The campaign proved remarkably swift, and the World Health Assembly announced that Dr. Jenner’s vaccine had freed the world of smallpox on May 8, 1980—nearly 184 years to the day after James Phipps was vaccinated.