More than 200 years before the coronavirus rocked the planet, smallpox had long held that dishonor, killing millions for centuries since around 10,000 BC. Its claims to infamy include killing almost seven million people during the initial decline of the Roman Empire and decimating the Aztecs and Incas. This “speckled monster” also is one of the first examples of biological warfare, when a British commander suggested using it against hostile Native Americans during the French-Indian War, 1754-1767.
Edward Jenner, a British physician and scientist, pioneered the use of cowpox inoculation to immunize against this deadly disease. Although he was neither the first to suggest this use of cowpox nor the first to attempt the procedure, his work validated it and led to eradication of smallpox. He also created the term “vaccination,” derived from the Latin word for cow, vacca, and cowpox, vaccinia.
The DMU Library’s Rare Book Room has an original copy of Jenner’s 1801 book that summarizes his cowpox inoculation cases, titled An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of the Cow Pox. In an early case, on May 14, 1796, Jenner inoculated James Phipps, his gardener’s eight-year-old son, using pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow. Although the boy suffered some discomfort, he quickly recovered and was shown to be immune from smallpox.
As the relatively rapid development of coronavirus vaccines saves lives and inspires hope they may halt the COVID-19 pandemic, we salute Edward Jenner.