The undoubted good news of the imminent arrival of a vaccine, or vaccines, to combat the scourge of the Covid 19 epidemic, has prompted me to recall the beginnings of vaccination as a medical tool, and the success of the first major vaccine in particular. It was the Small Pox vaccine
It is said that we should never meet our heroes, but there is one man, from history, that I would love to meet, if only to say “thank you”. The man is Dr. Edward Jenner from Gloucestershire, England, and there is little doubt about the fact that he did more for humanity, science, and medicine, than any man before or since, mainly because of the fact that he is the man mostly responsible for the manufacture of the vaccine, and ridding the world of the disease –smallpox.
It is hard to comprehend today the impact of Smallpox in the 18th century when it was most virulent. Approximately 400,000 people died from it each YEAR, in Europe, about one third of all who contracted it, another third were disfigured and pock-marked for life and the other third went blind. It spared neither kings, Princes, Pharoahs, rich or poor or indeed whole armies. When eventually introduced to the U.S. it decimated both the Aztec and Inca civilizations. No disease today, or combination of diseases can approximate to the terror and devastation of Smallpox.
But Edward Jenner, born in 1749, the son of a pastor, was an unlikely candidate for such fame. He was orphaned at the age of 5, and at the age of 13 was apprenticed to a medical practice in Berkley Gloucestershire. He was always bright, with a keen interest in all things natural, but his greatest asset is surely the fact that he was the most ardent disciple of “mindfulness” –well before that word was even invented. If he had not become a doctor he may well have become a scientist, an engineer, a physicist, or a weather-forecaster. He invented, and flew, his own Hydrogen Balloon 1785. He was the first person to state that the fledging cuckoo ousted the other eggs and chicks, to their doom, from the nest of its foster mother, in 1785. He was ridiculed for making such an outlandish suggestion, and it took until 1921, with the development of photography to prove him correct.
While he was in the practice in Berkley, one morning, at the tender age of 14, he overheard an exultant female patient, who had just been diagnosed with cow-pox, a very benign disease but with similar symptoms, proclaim that she would not now, ever suffer from the ravages of Small-pox. Being the ardent student he was, he never forgot that remark. In fact it was a well recognised concept at the time amongst dairy maids that if one contracted Cow Pox, it somehow meant that person would not subsequently develop Small pox. Actually the notion of transferred immunity was sort of understood, at the time, (by the women milking the cows for sure) but the Medical Hierarchy was in no mood to listen to the ramblings of an ignorant country woman. It seems some things never change. For young Jenner it was a seminal moment and he determined to devote his life to the study of immunity.
In 1796, whilst out on his country walk, he met a lady called Sarah Nelmes, who had recently been diagnosed with Cow-Pox. He cajoled her into “donating” a sample of her scars for an experiment. Next he persuaded his gardener to offer up his 8 year old son (young James Phibbs) as the other part of the experiment. By now he was qualified as a doctor. On May 11 1796, he injected some of the tissue from Sarah Nelmes into the unfortunate James Phibbs, the gardener’s son. Over the next few days young Phibbs developed mild flu like symptoms, but nothing more. The other part of the experiment was well heralded, and in the presence of a large crowd, plus the local constabulary, who threatened to arrest him for attempted murder, he injected the same young Phibbs with live Small –Pox tissue. This took place in July 1796, and young Phibbs developed no signs of any disease, and was monitored for a whole month. It was the first case of a successful small pox vaccination.
The news quickly spread, not just throughout England and Europe but the U.S as well, and it was soon reported all over the world. The experiment was looked upon by his own colleagues with distrust and admiration in equal measure. The famous “Royal Society” rejected the findings out of hand. Even though a form of vaccination was in vogue up until then, it involved the use of live Small Pox tissue and was only partially successful. This was the first time the concept of “transferred immunity”- that is vaccinating against a disease using material from a different disease was carried out.
Edward Jenner now came into his own, by not only vaccinating all comers for free, but sent his vaccine to all parts of the world for free-including Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. When Napoleon vaccinated his entire army, successfully, the reality of this magnificent breakthrough could no longer be denied. Napoleon, even though France was at war with England at the time, declared that Edward Jenner was the “greatest human being that ever lived”.
The W.H.O eventually decided it could rid the entire world of the disease, by use of an extensive vaccination program, which they did, and Small Pox is the first world inflicted disease to be deemed eradicated in 1968.
Jenner himself spent the rest of his life manufacturing the vaccine and sending samples all over the world. He built a small hut at the back of his own house, which exists to this day, specifically for the vaccination of the poor. His own medical practice was often neglected as a result of his pre-occupation with the vaccine. He died of a stroke brought on by exhaustion in 1823. A man who could have made millions died penniless. A few days before he died, he wrote; I am not surprised that men are not grateful to me, but I do wonder that they are not grateful to God for the good he has made me the instrument of.
Even though Small-Pox was declared non- existent in 1968, it did not stop the dying. To this day some live samples are in a secure lab in Illinois in the US and some more in Russia, but in 1978 the Bermingham School of Medical Studies also had samples in storage, and these samples were the subject of an experiment by Professor Henry Bedson. A medical journalist Janet Parker, fishing for a story, visited the lab, in August 1978, and somehow contracted the virus and died. She was not quite the last person to die, because on the day of her burial, Professor Henry Bedson committed suicide.
I am astonished, presently, to read that nearly 50% of the Irish population have reservations about taking the vaccine when it comes available. Contrast the fact that the first, and very successful, Small Pox vaccine, only had a one person human trial, before it was launched to the public, with the present day scenario where approximately 100,000 people have been experimented on, when we include the three main vaccine manufacturing groups. And this is before any of the three manufacturers are subjected to “peer review”-the final step before release to the public.
As a nation I feel we have become over cautious. We stop our kids playing on the street lest they fall and scratch a knee. We buy bottled water to clean our teeth and make tea, even though the tap water is perfectly safe. The amount of good food binned just because it has reached its best before date, and use by date, is a national scandal.
We are not living in a perfect world. The new vaccines might well be the most perfect part of it.