|Edward Jenner by James Northcote|
As a boy growing up in Berkeley, Jenner had long been aware of a country tale telling that milkmaids who had been infected with cowpox never fell prey to the virulent disease of smallpox that killed so many in the Georgian era. Cowpox was a skin irritation that was far from fatal and Jenner found himself contemplating how this might be used to protect against smallpox, an infection that proved so deadly amongst children. Vaccinations using cowpox-infected material had been carried out in small numbers in Europe already but the experiments, research and findings had not been collected until Jenner set to work.
Inspiration struck in spring 1796 when milkmaid Sarah Nelmes came to visit the doctor with a rash on her hand, fearing that it might be the dreaded smallpox. Instead, Jenner diagnosed Nelmes with cowpox and asked if he might take a sample of the pus from one of her blisters. She readily agreed and the scraping was taken. Now there was only the matter of finding someone willing to test the theory and for this he enlisted eight year old James Phipps, the son of his gardener.
|Edward Jenner vaccinating James Phipps, a boy of eight, on May 14, 1796 by Gaston Mélingue|
On 14th May 1796 the material taken from Nelmes was introduced into Phipps by way of small cuts on the boy's arms. Once he had exhibited and recovered from the symptoms of cowpox, Jenner variolated the boy, rubbing smallpox-infected material into the same small cuts. No doubt this was a very stressful time for the child and all who cared for him and as the hours ticked by they watched anxiously for any signs of infection. In fact, aside from a few light symptoms of fever, Phipps survived both this vaccination and many subsequent similar experiments. Jenner's theory had been proved and he set to work documenting and publishing his research.
Jenner encountered plenty of opposition to his new method, particularly from those who questioned the morality of using bovine material in humans and the doctors who made a living from variolation and had no interest in vaccination. He was not to be deterred though and became the spokesman for the cowpox method, with the vaccination method first tried on James Phipps eventually becoming the standard treatment to guard against smallpox.
|Dr Jenner performing his first vaccination on James Phipps, a boy of age 8. May 14th, 1796 by Ernest Board, 1910|
Jenner enjoyed plaudits and decoration for his work and in turn he awarded the adult Phipps and his family with a cottage in recognition of the part he had played in this most important series of experiments.