This weekend marks a massive landmark in the medical history of the world. It’s the anniversary of an event which has saved billions of lives, and yet it may not rate a single mention in the tabloid press. For centuries millions of people lived in dread of contracting smallpox, a highly contagious disease which swept across continents as a deadly plague, killing about a third of its victims and leaving survivors heavily pock marked and sometimes blind. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the disease was killing 400,000 Europeans a year. Nobody knew how it was caused, and no one knew how it could be controlled. It was called the ‘small’ pox merely to differentiate it from the longer recognised ‘great’ pox, or syphilis. Even as recently as 1967 it’s reckoned that two million people across the globe were still dying as a result of this deadly disease. Now the malady has been wiped from the face of the earth, the sole instance of the total eradication of a human infectious disease.
The story of this staggering breakthrough is one of romance and human ingenuity. It begins in the backstreet bazaars of Constantinople, and ends in a doctor’s surgery in Berkeley, an historic market town in western Gloucestershire. At the end of the eighteenth century a particularly virulent pandemic of smallpox spread throughout Europe. Most of the folk cures at the time were little better than witch’s potions. Some swore by: cinders of roasted toads, other put their faith in boiled sheep droppings. But one protective remedy showed a degree of promise. It was developed by Turkish peasants and is based on the old idea that like cures like. People could get a measure of protection from smallpox, it was found, if they were injected with the pus-like matter taken from the blisters of people who had overcome the disease. The account of this early form of immunisation was relayed to England at the beginning of the eighteenth century by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was the wife of the British consul in Constantinople. She had attended parties where wealthy townsfolk would bare their arms and receive jabs from peasant women who had dipped their needles in nut shells filled with a fluid laden with the smallpox virus. This potion was almost certainly taken from survivors of a variola minor infection, a less virulent strain of smallpox which kills only one per cent of its victims. This process was effective up to a point, but was not without risk. It was called variolation and was clearly a forerunner of the process we now know as immunisation.
Soon after this, an alternative remedy was pioneered by Dr Edward Jenner, a country physician who was born on the 17th May 1794 in Berkeley, an historic Gloucestershire market town. Although Jenner went on to achieve world wide fame, and earn the title of the ‘Father of Immunology’, he was essentially a west country figure. He was born in Berkeley, went on to become mayor of Berkeley, and throughout his life practised as a much loved doctor in Berkeley. It was here he was buried, in the chancel of Berkeley parish church, when he died of a stroke in 1823. During his work with the local farming community he noted that milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox. This led him to think that maybe when they contracted cowpox, a similar but much less virulent disease, they might gain protection from full-blown smallpox. To test this idea he took a sample from the cowpox blisters on the hand of Sarah Nelmes, a local milkmaid who had contracted the disease from a cow called Blossom.
He then inoculated this sample into an eight-year old lad named James Phipps. Not wanting to wait around to see if the boy caught smallpox later in life, he took the bold step of injecting the boy with samples of the smallpox virus. Since his ‘volunteer’ human guinea pig showed no signs of succumbing to the infection, Jenner carried out further trials and eventually published a scientific paper on the subject of ‘variola vaccination’, a term derived from the Latin cow meaning a ‘cow’. His colleagues at first were sceptical of his claims, which if proved true would reduce their incomes by mitigating one of their most lucrative epidemic diseases. Many laymen, then as now, were fervent anti-vaccinationists. But eventually the virtue and safety of the procedure was proved beyond doubt, one doctor proclaiming that ‘a man has no more right to allow his child to go unvaccinated than to set fire to his house.’ This vigorous support from the scientific community enabled the British government to pass a Vaccination Act in 1853 which made it compulsory for parents to vaccinate their children unless they could get a local Justice of the Peace to agree that this was contrary to their religious or moral beliefs.
By the introduction of this simple procedure the battle against smallpox was slowly won. Jenner’s contribution was honoured throughout the world. He was appointed Physician Extraordinary to King George IV, and was granted Â£30,000 out of the public purse, which was today’s equivalent of getting a roll-over lottery prize. In 1858 a statue of the great benefactor, funded largely by public subscription, was set up in a place of honour in Trafalgar Square and unveiled by Prince Albert. The tribute was welcomed by the medical profession, an editorial published that year in the ‘British Medical Journal’ saying; ‘Why should those who destroy be ever placed in the front rank, whilst the philanthropist and the philosopher are only permitted to occupy out-of-the-way corners in forgotten squares?’ Despite this widespread support, the authorities saw fit four years later to re-site the statue in a remote nook in Kensington Gardens where it sadly remains to this day.
In 1979 the World Health Organization declared smallpox an eradicated disease, which it described as the greatest ever medical advance. An attempt is now being made to revive the memory of Edward Jenner, and to ensure that his statue is returned to its original, and rightful, place with the military heroes in Trafalgar Square. People have been exercising their right to sign a petition to No10 Downing Street, to urge that steps should be taken to bring about this relocation to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the eradication of smallpox. The lines have been temporarily closed, because the Cabinet’s spin doctors are currently engaged in what they consider to be matters of greater political significance. But they will be reopened once the election is over, and I urge everyone wishing to honour the memory of Edward Jenner, to add their name to http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/Jenner2010. And if you fancy a family outing on Sunday May 16th to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the eradication of smallpox, why not travel to Berkeley, where you can enjoy a conducted tour round Jenner’s house accompanied by costumed guides, some made up to look like smallpox sufferers. The house is now a museum, one of its prize exhibits being the horns of Blossom, the cow who gave her name to the vaccination process. For further details visit the museum’s website: www.jennermuseum.com.
Source by Donald Norfolk