With contributions from Cirencester Archaeological & Historical Society, members & friends
Pioneer of smallpox vaccine and father of immunology
When it comes to arguing about which individual has saved more lives than any other person in history the name of Edward Jenner ranks very high. What has been surprisingly little-known to local people is that Jenner was a pupil at Cirencester Grammar School in Park Lane. But now, on 26 January 2023, the bicentenary of his death, a Cirencester Civic Society blue plaque will be unveiled to celebrate this local hero.
Accounts of Jenner’s early life are scarce and information is sometimes contradictory. We know that Jenner was born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, and had lost both parents by the age of five. He was sent to Cirencester Grammar School, aged about 8, where he encountered smallpox for the first time. Along with his fellow pupils he was variolated by a local surgeon, after an intense 6-week preparation period that included purging and bloodlettings.
For centuries smallpox had been one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity, killing approximately 20% of those infected, horribly scarring and often blinding many of the survivors. Variolation was a method of immunising patients against smallpox by infecting them with a mild form of the disease. While the smallpox variolation significantly reduced fatality rates, it carried a risk of death and the terrifying potential to trigger new smallpox outbreaks.
While at Cirencester Grammar School Jenner apparently excelled in the classics while privately pursuing natural history interests, with a fascination for fossil hunting and geology. There he was to make lifelong friends with two fellow pupils, both of whom also became notable physicians, Caleb Hillier Parry and John Clinch, who is credited with introducing vaccination to North America.
Following a medical apprenticeship in Chipping Sodbury, Jenner moved to London in 1770 to complete his medical training under the famous surgeon John Hunter. Jenner returned to Berkeley in 1772, where he established himself as the local physician and surgeon, and where he largely remained for the rest of his life.
Like many physicians of the time Jenner carried out variolation to protect his patients from smallpox, but he was intrigued by country-lore which said that people who caught cowpox from their cows did not catch smallpox. This idea, and the trauma of his own experience of variolation as a schoolboy in Cirencester, set him on a research path that was to lead to vaccinations as we know them now.
Jenner’s great idea was to variolate patients with cowpox pustules rather than smallpox. The first experiment was in May 1796, the subjects Sarah Nelmes, the milkmaid who had contracted cowpox from Blossom the cow, and James Phipps, the 8-year-old son of Jenner’s gardener. The experiment worked in that James, having recovered from the administered cowpox, was variolated with smallpox twice and recovered from that too.
Vaccinations (from the Latin word vacca for cow) had been tried at least twice before Jenner but without any thoughts of universal application. Jenner made further experiments on volunteers, including members of his own family, and in 1798 published the results in his legendary, self-published Inquiry.
Jenner would have been humbled by the progress of vaccinations in the prevention and eradication of diseases since his death 200 years ago. In Britain variolation was forbidden by Parliament in 1840 and vaccination with cowpox was made compulsory in 1853.
In 1980 the World Health Organisation formally declared that smallpox was dead and the most feared disease of all time was gone. Mankind will always have to battle viruses and diseases and in that battle we owe a huge debt of honour to this Cirencester schoolboy who was to become the father of immunology.
Auctioneer & Senior Valuer, Dominic Winter Auctioneers
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