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Edward Jenner

developer of vaccination

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner was born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England, on May 17, 1749. He trained in Sodbury, Gloucestershire, as an apprentice to Dr. Ludlow for eight years beginning at the age of 13, then went to London in 1770 to study under the surgeon John Hunter and at Saint George's Hospital. He began his own practice in his home town in 1773 and soon became a successful general practitioner and surgeon.

In addition to treating patients, Jenner undertook studies in natural history and collected materials for John Hunter's museum of biological specimens. In 1787, he published a paper in the Philosophical Transacations of the Royal Society in which he described how newly-hatched cuckoos pushed their hosts' eggs and fledglings from the nest, which was contrary to the existing belief that the adult cuckoos were responsible. He also described how a baby cuckoo has a depression in its back which is perfectly sized for cupping eggs and other chicks to push them out of the nest.

Jenner was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1788, the same year that he married Catherine Kingscote (she died of tuberculosis in 1815). He obtained his medical degree from the University of St. Andrews in 1792.

His Work on Smallpox

Before and during Jenner's time smallpox was one of the most serious health hazards in Europe. Many centuries before, the Chinese discovered that it was possible to promote some immunity by blowing the powdered scabs that flaked off a smallpox victim up the nostrils of someone who had not contracted the disease. The practice of inoculation against smallpox originated in Turkey and Greece in the 17th century. Serum from the blisters of sufferers was scratched with a needle into the skin of those who were healthy, in the hopes of inducing a mild attack of the disease. The method came to widely used throughout Europe during the 18th century, though the risks of inducing a potentially fatal strain of the disease remained high.

While conducting his own research into smallpox Jenner came across the old belief that dairymen and milkmaids who caught cowpox from the cattle they worked with would be safe from contracting smallpox. From his own observations he confirmed that this appeared to be true. He also recognized that it could well be possible that this relatively mild disease of cows could confer immunity against the much more fierce disease to which humans were vulnerable. For twenty years Jenner worked cautiously on experimenting with his idea, until, in 1796, he was confident enough to put it to an ultimate test. He inoculated James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy, with cowpox, and the boy soon showed the signs of the disease's mild rash. Two months later, Jenner inoculated him with smallpox. The boy never showed signs of the disease.

Jenner named this method vaccination, from the Latin word vaccinia for cowpox, and its use spread rapidly in a world where fear of smallpox was considerably stronger than the obstacles which many members of the medical community tried to place in Jenner's way. Jenner's initial paper to the Royal Society on the subject was turned down, and attempts were made to discredit Jenner's work. One doctor even went so far as to contaminate a batch of vaccine in a hospital with smallpox virus. The attempts failed, and the death-rate from smallpox fell dramatically. After 1800, vaccinations became accepted as a means to prevent smallpox.

In 1803, in London, Jenner became involved with the Jennerian Institution, a society concerned with promoting vaccination to eradicate smallpox. In 1808, with government aid, this society became the National Vaccine Establishment. In 1805, he became a member of the newly founded Medical and Chirurgical Society -- now the Royal Society of Medicine.

Honors and Recognition

In promoting his discovery and his confidence in its effectiveness, Jenner worked tirelessly and without concern for financial reward. His personal fortunes suffered and his medical practice was neglected. In recognition of his work, the British Parliament granted him 10,000 pounds in 1802, and another 20,000 pounds in 1806. Oxford University conferred an honorary Doctor of Medicine degree on Jenner in 1813.

In 1821, Jenner was appointed Physician Extraordinary to King George IV, and made Mayor of Berkeley and Justice of the Peace.


Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolæ Vaccinæ was published in 1798, after the Royal Society refused to accept Jenner's paper. Further Observations of the Variolæ Vaccinæ or Cowpox, published in 1799, was written chiefly as a reply to people objecting to the practice of vaccination. A Continuation of Facts and Observations Relative to the Variolæ Vaccinæ was published in 1800, and The Origin of the Vaccine Inoculation was published in 1801.

Continuing his interests in natural history, he presented Observations on the Migration of Birds to the Royal Society in 1823.

Jenner died on January 26, 1823. He is interred in the chancel of the parish church of Berkeley.

Print Source

Feldman, Anthony and Peter Ford Scientists and Inventors, The People Who Made Technology from Earliest Times to Present Day New York: Facts on File, 1979

Site of Interest

Edward Jenner Museum

See Also

John Hunter

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This page was last updated on 01/26/2019.