Edward Jenner VS the Apocalypse; the first vaccination.
We are lucky that most of the infectious diseases that prove deadly to humans and have plagued all humanity have now been mostly rendered neuter and contained. No longer do we have to be constantly concerned about the whereabouts of Pestilence, the nastiest of the four horseman.
“For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.”
Yes, every-so-often we’re caught off guard and blindsided by SARS, H1N1, or COVID, but the reality is that our current protocols prevent such catastrophes from spiraling into Apocalyptic events. When the dust of these shakeups is clear, we don’t look at a virus as the terror-filled monster that it might have been in past eras but as something surmountable. We instantly fly into fits of rage, not because of the awe-inspiring power of the diseases, but because – if the outbreak was too great – someone or some organization dropped the ball along the way. We no longer blame the virus for the untold deaths, but the lack of coordination or response from the persons in charge… and, most of the time, we’re correct; someone did drop the ball.
Why are viruses no longer biological problems but political quandaries? Why are we more afraid of the botched way they are handled, and the blunders committed to fencing them up, then what they represent? Why is the first thing initiated after an outbreak is contained, an oversight committee to determine whose fault it was?
Because we’ve robbed Mother Nature of much of her power. We’ve defanged her and the only way she can now strike a blow is if someone, somewhere, isn’t where they are supposed to be… and that control over biology and genetics, that control over our fate, is thanks to pioneers like Edward Jenner.
Born on 17 May 1749 in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, UK, Edward Jenner was child eight of nine. His father, the Reverend Stephen Jenner, was the clergyman of Berkeley. Back then, the vicars’ family received a strong basic education, which was pivotal to the way Edward interacted with the world later on.
He enrolled in school in Wotton-under-Edge at Katherine Lady Berkeley’s School and in Cirencester. During this time, he was immunized by exposure to smallpox; this was a common practice. Young men would be purposely exposed to viruses in order to strengthen their immune system and build antibodies. As you can imagine, this had profound psychological effects of Edward; it was the equivalent of shooting someone in the knee just so they get used to the pain and don’t complain when it happens off the cuff.
When Edward was 14, he became the apprentice of Daniel Ludlow, a surgeon of Chipping Sodbury, South Gloucestershire. For seven long years, he wallowed in the teachings of his masters and finally managed to gain enough experience to become a surgeon himself.
In 1770, aged 21, Jenner switched teachers and began to study anatomy under surgeon John Hunter and others at St. George’s Hospital, London.
Here, Hunter gave Jenner the only advice making the rounds in medical circles concerning experimentation and radical treatments:
Don’t think; try.
Jenner’s investigations into the connection between cowpox pus and smallpox in humans encouraged him to produce the smallpox vaccine. It was a trial and error affair where he was the guinea pig in most cases.
Inoculation was the usual practice when dealing with smallpox, but it involved serious risks. The patient might die, develop complications, or transfer the disease to those around them
This practice was relatively new. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in 1721, had introduced variolation to Britain after having witnessed it in Constantinople. The chances for fatality, due to inoculation was as high as 20%… one in five wouldn’t survive the procedure.
As such, Edward decided to make it his life goal to produce a vaccine.
Jenner started immunizing James Phipps with cowpox, a virus similar to smallpox, to create immunity. A much less threatening disease. There were studies in place on the effects of cowpox and how it rendered a person immune to smallpox but it was not until Jenner’s trials and procedures that it jumped into the limelight.
Scientists had noted that milkmaids were usually immune to smallpox. The pus from blisters in cow infecting them with a much less virulent strain of the disease.
The initial source of infection was a disease of horses, called “the grease”, which was transferred to cattle by farmworkers, transformed, and then manifested as cowpox.
On 14 May 1796, Jenner tested his hypothesis by vaccinating James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy who was the son of Jenner’s gardener.
Jenner inoculated Phipps in both arms that day; using pus from sores cultivated from cows. Phipps developed a fever and some turmoil, but no full-blown infection. Later, he injected Phipps with smallpox, the conventional method of immunization at that time. No infection ensued. The boy was later tested with other infectious materials and again showed no sign of the life-threatening disease.
“Jenner’s unique contribution was not that he inoculated a few persons with cowpox, but that he then proved that they were immune to smallpox. Moreover, he demonstrated that the protective cowpox pus could be effectively inoculated from person to person, not just directly from cattle.”
- Donald Hopkins
Jenner continued his experimentations on 23 additional subjects.
Ultimately, vaccination was accepted, and in 1840. Since that day, the British government banned variolation and administered shots using cowpox free of charge.
In a state of near-death on 25 January 1823, Jenner was observed with his right side paralyzed. He never healed and finally died of stroke on 26 January 1823, aged 73.
In 1979, the World Health Organization declared smallpox an eradicated disease. Coordinated public health efforts, based on vaccination, was how such a feat was accomplished. Now smallpox is extinct, and what little focal points exist isn’t on account of its strengths and resilience but governmental errors and poverty.
Jenner’s vaccine set the groundwork for modern discoveries in immunology.
In 2002, Jenner was selected as one of the 100 Greatest Britons following a UK-wide vote.
Edward Jenner inspired. He pushed the boundaries of science, exploration and above all dogmatic beliefs. When he set out on his epic struggle and slow journey toward a logical and scientific understanding of viruses, the area of controlling disease, the field was mired in superstition, myths, and foolishness. Illnesses were caused by ghosts, demons, the Earth disgorging toxic fumes. They were for all intents and purposes punishments from the Gods.
Jenner and his ilk disproved this notion, but he robbed the Gods of their power, like Prometheus poking Zeus’ eye and gifting mankind fire.
Thanks to Jenner’s stand against medieval beliefs, viruses were now agents of nature, not the cosmos. He inspired Larry Brilliant – doctor, futurist, philanthropist – who was instrumental in ushering in the WHO protocol that wiped smallpox off Earth’s face. Nicole Grasset is another powerhouse in the field. Jenner gave wings to them and thousands of others.
Medically we’ve advanced to the point of giving that Fourth Horseman a run for his money because of Jenner… and those he inspired.