Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner: A Pioneer of Modern Medicine


Today marks the birthday of a man who History has shown to be one of the great pioneers of modern medicine, whose work led to the advent of vaccination. Bearing in mind how much we rely on these to protect us against numerous conditions and diseases now, it is one worth remembering.

Born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire on 17 May 1749, Edward Jenner was the son of the local vicar. He was only 14 years old when he became an apprentice to a surgeon, and began training to be a doctor. Working in the countryside, Jenner noticed that, despite the rife nature of the smallpox disease across England, the milkmaids never suffered from it. They didn’t even show signs of the scarring that commonly affected smallpox sufferers. He did know, however, that the milkmaids often suffered from the far less serious condition of cowpox. Jenner therefore began to work on the theory that perhaps milkmaids did catch the smallpox disease, but had somehow become immune to it.

Taking his thought processes further, Jenner speculated that if you had the relatively harmless cowpox, then perhaps you wouldn’t get the far more lethal disease of smallpox at all. Wanting to prove his theory, in 1796 Jenner carried out his now famous experiment, which involved using a needle to insert pus from Sarah Neales, a milkmaid with cowpox, into the arm of an eight-year-old, James Phipps. A few days later, Jenner then exposed James to the smallpox. The boy failed to contract the disease, and Jenner concluded he was now immune to it. Calling this new method vaccination (after the Latin word vacca, meaning cow), Jenner submitted a paper to the Royal Society the following year about his discovery. It was met with some interest, but further proof was requested. Jenner proceeded to vaccinate and monitor several more children, including his own son.

Although the results of Jenner’s study were published in 1798, his work met with opposition, and even ridicule. It wasn’t until 1853, 30 years after Edward Jenner had died, that his smallpox vaccination was to be made a compulsory injection across both England and Wales. However, Jenner’s work would ultimately lead to a wave of medical innovation, and further, to the large number of life saving vaccinations available today. For this, he is surely worthy of remembrance.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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