St George’s alumnus Edward Jenner (1749-1823) was a country doctor who pioneered the vaccination against the deadly disease smallpox, the world’s first vaccine. He is often credited with saving more lives through his work than any other human in history.

Edward Jenner

Referred to as “the father of immunology”, Jenner registered as a pupil at St George’s Hospital in 1770, training under the renowned surgeon John Hunter. At this time, smallpox had reached epidemic proportions. It was estimated to have killed between 300 and 500 million people in the 20th century.

Edward Jenner and the smallpox vaccination

In 1796, Jenner took an interest in a dairymaid named Sarah Nelmes, who had caught the cowpox infection from Blossom the cow. Jenner had noted that milkmaids, who often contracted the mild disease cowpox, were generally immune to smallpox. This led to his theory that exposure to cowpox could protect someone from smallpox.

To test his hypothesis, he extracted some material from a cowpox pustule on Sarah’s hand and inoculated eight-year-old James Phipps with the pus.

He then exposed the boy to a potentially lethal dose of smallpox, but Phipps did not contract the infection. Jenner successfully tested this method on 23 additional subjects.

Jenner’s inoculation of James Phipps was groundbreaking and launched a new era in vaccination and control of infectious diseases. His first vaccination against smallpox led to the eventual eradication of the disease in 1980, 184 years after his experiment. In 1821, he was appointed physician extraordinary to King George IV.

Huge scale vaccinations swept across Europe with great success. However, with success came some opposition. There was speculation that the vaccine would cause the taker to develop bovine characteristics.

As a result, Jenner spent much of the remainder of his life advocating for vaccines, even providing many of them free of charge. This effort bankrupted him and Jenner died of a stroke in 1823.

Jenner’s legacy at St George’s

Immunology is still an important area of research at St George’s today. Our Jenner Wing houses scientists working to improve prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, malaria, HIV and other diseases.

A reminder of Jenner’s experiment - the hide of Blossom the cow - can be found in our library today. It was presented to St George’s, University of London by Jenner’s son in 1857.

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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 August 2018 14:20