Supporting the philosophical study of bioethics, bio-medical ethics, biotechnology, and the future of life, at Middle Tennessee State University and beyond... "Keep your health, your splendid health. It is better than all the truths under the firmament." William James
It was on this day in 1796 that the doctor Edward Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy with a vaccine for smallpox, the first safe vaccine ever developed.
Jenner was a country doctor and surgeon in the small town of Berkley, England, where he had lived for most of his life. The only time he’d ever been away from Berkley was when he studied for a few years at a hospital in London. It was there that he learned the basics of the scientific method, experimentation and careful observation. The job of a country doctor involved a fairly rudimentary treatment of injuries and illness, but Jenner thought he might be able to put the scientific method to some good use.
The most devastating disease in the world at the time was smallpox, a disease that caused boils to break out all over the body. It killed about one in every four adults who caught it, and one in every three children, and it was so contagious that most human beings in populous areas caught it at some point in their lives. During the 18th century alone, it killed about 60 million people.
In the mid-1700s, British doctors had imported a procedure from Asia in which healthy people were deliberately infected with smallpox through the skin, which brought on a milder form of the disease and then immunity. The procedure was called “inoculation,” after the horticultural term. Inoculation wasn’t practical, because inoculated patients could pass the disease onto others while they were showing symptoms, and some inoculated patients developed the more severe form of the disease and died.
Jenner wanted to develop a smallpox inoculation that wouldn’t harm anyone. He worked in a place with a lot of dairy farmers, and there was a rumor that milkmaids almost never caught smallpox. Jenner realized that the milkmaids had all suffered from disease called cowpox, which they’d caught from the udders of cows. Jenner had a hunch that the infection of cowpox somehow helped the milkmaids develop immunity to smallpox.
Jenner decided to take some of the fluid from a cowpox sore and inject in into a healthy patient. There were no laws governing medical experimentation on human subjects at the time, but Jenner still had some reservations about trying his ideas out on a person. He mulled it over for years, and then finally decided to go ahead. On this day in 1796, he gathered some cowpox material from an infected milkmaid’s hand and injected it into the arm of an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps.
The boy developed a slight headache, and lost his appetite, but that was all. Six weeks later, Jenner inoculated the boy with smallpox, and the boy showed no symptoms. He had developed immunity from the cowpox.
Jenner submitted a paper about his new procedure to the prestigious Royal Society of London, but it was rejected. The president of the Society told Jenner that it was a mistake to risk his reputation by publishing something so controversial.
So Jenner published his ideas at his own expense in a 75-page book, which came out in 1798. The book was a sensation. The novelist Jane Austen noted in one of her letters that she’d been at a dinner party and everyone was talking about the “Jenner pamphlet.” The procedure eventually caught on, and it was called a “vaccine” after the Latin word for cow. It wasn’t perfect at first, because of poor sanitation and dirty needles, but it was the first time anyone had successfully prevented the infection of any contagious disease.
What made it so remarkable was that Jenner accomplished this before the causes of disease were even understood. It would be decades before anyone even knew about the existence of germs.