The Father of Immunology

This is another subject recommended by my mom.  A couple weeks ago I made the mistake of getting into a discussion about vaccines on Facebook.  I knew it was a bad idea as I was doing it but couldn’t help myself.  As you can imagine it didn’t go well…  I related the story to my mom and she suggested researching vaccines, or at least Edward Jenner.  So I did.

by James Northcote, oil on canvas, 1803, 1823

Edward Anthony Jenner was born on May 17, 1749, the eighth of nine children.  His father was the Rev. Stephen Jenner, the vicar in Berkeley.  Because his father was a vicar, Edward had a better education than most.  He went to school at Wotton-under-Edge and Cirencester, where he was inoculated against smallpox.  This inoculation supposedly had a lifelong impact on his health and may have affected his further career.

When he was fourteen, Edward was apprenticed to a surgeon, Mr. Daniel Ludlow, in South Gloucestershire.  Edward stayed with Mr. Ludlow for seven years.  In 1770, at the end of the seven years, Edward was apprenticed to John Hunter and his colleagues at St. George’s Hospital to study surgery and anatomy.  John  Hunter gave Edward the advice, “Don’t think; try”, the famous advice of William Harvey.  Edward returned to his boyhood area in 1773 and became a successful doctor and surgeon; he kept in contact with Hunter though, and Hunter even suggested Edward for the Royal Society.

Back in Berkeley, Edward and some colleagues started the Gloucestershire Medical Society.  The group had meals and read medical papers.  Edward contributed papers on “angina pectoris, ophthalmia, and cardiac valvular disease and commented on cowpox” (1).  Edward was part of a similar group near Bristol as well.

In 1788, Edward was elected to the Royal Society for a paper he wrote on the nested cuckoo; natural history was a lifelong passion of his.  In 1792, Edward received his MD from the University of St Andrews.  In March of 1788, Edward married Catharine Kingscote.  Edward and Catharine may have met while he was doing a ballooning experiment on or near her family’s property.  They would have two sons and a daughter together before Catharine’s death in 1815 from tuberculosis.

A bit of background on vaccinations and smallpox.  Previous attempts had been made to stop people from catching these horrible diseases.  The Circassians had been doing inoculations for as long as was known, and the Turks had learned of it from them.  In 1721, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu brought variolation to Britain from Istanbul.  Voltaire wrote that 60% of the population at the time caught smallpox, and 20% of the population would die from it.  Smallpox was devastating countries’ populations.  In 1765 John Fewster wrote a paper on the link of smallpox to cowpox, but did not pursue the connection.

Starting in the 1770s, five people in both England and Germany were testing cowpox as a treatment against smallpox, but did not make proper headway.  At the time it was understood that milkmaids had relative immunity to smallpox.  Edward Jenner believed that if we could put pus from cowpox blisters into healthy people, it would protect them from smallpox.

On May 14, 1796, Edward tested his theory on the eight-year-old son of his gardener.  Edward put pus from a milkmaid’s cowpox blisters into small cuts on both of the boy’s arms.  The boy developed a bit of a fever but was basically fine.  After the boy had recovered, Edward gave him the normal course of variolation for smallpox and the boy was fine; Edward tried again a while later and the boy was again fine.  This helped show that 1) we could prevent smallpox better than we’d been doing and 2) that we could create immunity from person to person, people did not have to come into contact with cows.

Edward tried his procedure on twenty-three other subjects and the results held.  Edward published his findings and vaccination took off.  (Some of the conclusions Edward made were correct, others have been disproved due to improving science, but his theory about vaccination holds.)  Edward’s discovery spread across Europe and the world; by 1840 Britain had banned variolation and made vaccination for smallpox free of charge.  All this work on vaccination meant Edward couldn’t keep up his normal practice though; he was granted large sums of money to keep up his research rather than having to go back to his normal job.

From 1803 to its disbanding in 1809, Edward was president of the Jennerian Society which was “concerned with promoting vaccination to eradicate smallpox” (2).  In 1808 the National Vaccine Establishment was founded; Edward didn’t like who was running it though and so was not very involved.  In 1805, Edward became a founding member of the Medical and Chirurgical Society, which later became the Royal Society of Medicine.  In 1802 Edward was elected a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1806 a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

In 1811 Edward returned to London.  He noted that the cases of smallpox that were around among the vaccinated were of much less severity than those of those who weren’t vaccinated.  This continued to show his research to be correct, and allowed him to continue making observations on vaccinations over time.

In 1821 Edward was appointed physician to King George IV.  He was also elected mayor of Berkeley, and was a justice of the peace.  Throughout this time, Edward continued his natural history work too.  In 1823 he presented a paper to the Royal Society on bird migrations.

On January 25, 1823, Edward suffered a case of apoplexy that paralyzed his right side.  The next day, January 26, he suffered a stroke and died.  He was 73.  Edward Jenner was buried at St Mary’s in Berkeley and was survived by a son and a daughter.

Edward’s recognitions did not stop with his death.  English settlers to Pennsylvania named a number of towns for him in Pennsylvania.  His house is now a small museum.  There are statues to him all over England.  Hospitals all over have wings named for him.  He has a crater on the moon named for him, and there’s even a character on The Walking Dead named Jenner for him.

Edward Jenner’s work laid the foundations for immunology, leading to him being called “The Father of Immunology”.  Most importantly, I think, in 1979 the World Health Organization “declared smallpox an eradicated disease” (3), largely due to vaccinations, but from other measures as well.  Some samples of smallpox still exist in places like the CDC, but hopefully we will never need them.

Vaccinations are so important.  As that last paragraph says, the WHO has declared smallpox eradicated.  We are close to that with other diseases too, but access to vaccines in some places across the globe makes that difficult.  There’s no reason that some of these deadly diseases should be popping back up in the United States of all places.  They were nearly eradicated here and due to the anti-vaxx movement they’re coming back (I’m think of measles, etc. right now).  This is ridiculous.  People put their lives at risk to vaccinate rather than potentially get some of these diseases (look at those numbers from Voltaire again!  Also, I recommend finding the clip from the John Adams miniseries where Abigail vaccinates –or I guess actually variolates– the family against smallpox), and we’re not vaccinating because that’s somehow seen as worse?  I don’t get it… Okay, soapbox-ing over.

1, 2, 3 – Edward Jenner


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