Notable Britons in History

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner was a doctor in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. In 1796 he carried out his now famous experiment on eight-year-old James Phipps. Jenner inserted pus taken from a cowpox pustule on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes and inserted it into an incision on the boy's arm. He was testing his theory, drawn from the folklore of the countryside, that milkmaids who suffered the mild disease of cowpox never contracted smallpox.

Jenner subsequently proved that having been inoculated with cowpox Phipps was now immune to smallpox. He submitted a paper to the Royal Society in 1797 describing his experiment but was told that his ideas were too revolutionary and that he needed more proof. Undaunted, Jenner experimented on several other children, including his own 11-month-old son. In 1798 the results were finally published and Jenner coined the word vaccine from the Latin vacca for cow, and called the process vaccination.

The immediate reaction to Jenner's work was ridicule. Critics, especially the clergy, claimed it was repulsive and ungodly to inoculate someone with material from a diseased animal. A satirical cartoon of 1802 showed people who had been vaccinated sprouting cow's heads. However the obvious advantages of vaccination and the protection it provided won out, and vaccination soon became widespread.