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Edward Jenner's Biography

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Edward Jenner was born on 17 May 1749 in the small town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, the son of the vicar of Berkeley.

Edward Jenner was apprenticed to a surgeon at Sodbury, near Bristol, where a country girl had visited Jenner's master and said in reference to smallpox, "I can't take that disease, for I have had cowpox."

Jenner set about investigating the claim, but his professional friends laughed at the notion that cowpox had prophylactic qualities and shunned him.

However, in 1770, Edward Jenner went to London to study under the anatomist and physiologist John Hunter who had made important advances in surgery by ignoring the sneers of his contemporaries and trusting in scientific facts.

John Hunter's advice to Edward Jenner was "Don't think, but try; be patient, be accurate."

In 1773 Edward Jenner returned to Berkeley and spurred on by Hunter's advice he began to thoroughly examine the truth of the effectiveness of cowpox as a protection against smallpox.

Dr Jenner continued his observations for twenty years, and his faith in his discovery was so great that he vaccinated his own son three times.

In 1798 Jenner published his treatise, An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, detailing 23 cases of successful vaccination of whom it was later found to be impossible to communicate smallpox through contagion or inoculation.

Initially the publication met with indifference and then hostility. Dr Jenner visited London to demonstrate the process of vaccination and its results but not one medical professional was persuaded to trial the method.

In some quarters he was abused for trying to 'bestialize' his species by introducing into the human the diseased matter from cow's udders. Some churchmen described vaccination as 'diabolical'.

However, a major breakthrough for the credibility of vaccination came when Lady Ducie and the Countess of Berkeley had the courage to vaccinate their children. Eventually prejudices started to wane, and the medical profession slowly came round.

Finally parliament awarded Jenner two large grants and Napoleon I had a medal struck in his honour. Edward Jenner was invited to practice in London for a very large sum, but his answer came:

"No! In the morning of my days I have sought the sequestered and lowly paths of life - the valley, and not the mountain, and now, in the evening of my days, it is not meet for me to hold myself up as an object for fortune and fame."

The great naturalist, Cuvier, remarked:

"If vaccine were the only discovery of the epoch; it would serve to render it illustrious for ever; yet it knocked twenty times in vain at the door of the Academics."

Edward Jenner died in 1823.


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