Edward Jenner- The discoverer of the first vaccine

Any outbreak of disease that ends up as a pandemic needs a medicine. The medicine cannot be a permanent cure for the disease. It may only resist the spread or may reduce the intensity of the infection. A look back into history will make us aware of some interesting facts on the birth of the first vaccine. Diseases like smallpox, cowpox, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and many other diseases were arrested due to vaccines.

Smallpox was a terrible disease which was causing havoc in the early 18th century in Europe alone. Due to rise in the global trade and spread of empires, this disease had ravaged masses of people. Smallpox would cause high fever, horrible disfiguring rashes were developed over the body, pustules filled with pus would be seen on the scalp, feet, and throat. These, in a few days would dry out and start falling off. The scabs once they fell off would leave you disfigured. This caused a lot of resentment and depression among the survivors and some would even commit suicide out of resentment and grief.

Some treatments like placing people in hot or cold rooms, or wrapping people in red cloth or many other treatments would pacify the pain. But it was important to provide a genuine cure to the disease and that was possible only with inoculation. This was a very complicated process to prevent the spread of the disease. It involved taking the pus from someone suffering with smallpox and scratching it on the skin of the healthy individual. Another technique involved blowing of smallpox scabs up the nose. But these techniques were not fool proof and people unknowingly became the carriers of the disease.

By 1700s, some part of the rural England became immune to smallpox but milkmaids, instead contracted a mild cattle disease called cowpox which also left little scarring. In 1774, England, a farmer named Benjamin Jesty decided to try something as a cure to the new scarring disease. He scratched some pus from cowpox lesions on the cow’s udders into the skin of his wife and son. It was found that none of them contracted smallpox.

Edward Jenner, a country doctor, working in small town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, was trained in London under one of the leading surgeons of the day. In 1796, after gathering some circumstantial evidence from farmers and milkmaids, Jenner decided to experiment on the disease. He decided to experiment on a child, which may prove to be fatal. He tried the same method of collecting pus from cowpox lesions on the hands of a young milkmaid, who was suffering, and scratched it on the skin of an eight-year-old child, James Phipps. It was found that James developed a mild illness but recovered sufficiently from smallpox blisters. Also, none of them who met James were infected. This paved the way for the first vaccine.

Edward Jenner is considered the founder of vaccinology in the West in 1796. In 1798, the first smallpox vaccine was developed. It was the first vaccine of its kind to be developed against a contagious disease. Jenner’s method underwent medical and technological changes over the next 200 years that eventually resulted in eradication of smallpox.

Louis Pasteur’s 1885 rabies vaccine was the next to make an impact on human disease. And then, at the dawn of bacteriology, developments rapidly followed. Antitoxins and vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis, and more were developed through the 1930’s.

The middle of the 20th century was an active time for vaccine research and development. Methods for growing viruses in the laboratory led to rapid discoveries and innovations, including the creation of vaccines for polio. Researchers targeted other common childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, and rubella and vaccines for these diseases reduced the disease burden greatly.

During the outbreak of The Spanish flu that wreaked a havoc in 1918- 20 several vaccines were tested against Bacillus influenzae (now known as Haemophilus influenzae) and many other strains of bacteria. These bacterial vaccines had no chance of stopping the pandemic which, we now know, was caused by a new strain of the influenza A virus.

Today as the world is fighting with the Covid-19 pandemic, we are equipped with vaccines that can help us fight with the fatal disease. Vaccines will protect us by creating antibodies and reduce the fatality caused by the virus.

Edward Jenner, didn’t seek to make money form the vaccine nor was he interested in patenting it. He converted a rustic summerhouse as a centre of vaccination and invited local people to get vaccinated after church on Sunday. He strongly believed that he would be able to control the spread of the disease if he could vaccinate as many people as possible.

He continued his work on vaccines and this precious contribution was considered to have laid a foundation for contemporary discoveries in immunology.

Jenner was found in a state of apoplexy on 25th January 1823 with his right side paralyzed. He did not recover and died the next day of an apparent stroke which occurred second time on 26th January 1823. He was buried in the family vault at the church of St. Mary, Berkeley.

Leave a comment