The story began a century before the Regency. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu brought the practice of variolazation from the Ottoman Empire, to England. Variolazation is the practice of taking live smallpox infection from a sick person and introducing the infection to a healthy person in a small dose. Usually the person suffered a light case of smallpox that protected him from contracting the disease in its too often lethal form (between 20 and 33% of adults died from smallpox, as much as 80% of babies, and those who survived were usually scarred and/or blinded).
The practice continued throughout the eighteenth century with enough success that people risked their health and potentially their looks, to having the variegation performed upon them. But folklore claimed that dairymaids did not contract smallpox, as a rule even when exposed to it. Physicians ignored this as country folk nonsense.
He was a vicar’s son from Berkeley, Gloucestershire, who began his apprenticeship to be a surgeon at the age of thirteen—1772. His studies carried him to the home of someone with smallpox. He had gone through variolazation, so did not fear the disease. And neither did a dairymaid, who offered to nurse the sick person because she had had the cowpox. Despite the master surgeon’s scoffing of the notion, Jenner’s interest was piqued.
In 1796, Jenner took pus from sores on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, who had contracted cowpox from Blossom, and scratched the infected matter into the skin of an eight-year-old boy. Jenner later deliberately infected the boy with smallpox. He did not contract the disease. Jenner tried again. Again, the boy did not contract the disease.
Gentle reader, let me say that we are a bit horrified that he would do this to an eight-year-old child who had likely given no say in whether or not he was used as an experiment. But we owe this child a great deal, as smallpox, according to the World Health Organization, has been eradicated for nearly forty years.
But back to our tale.
Jenner tried to get the Royal Society to sponsor him. He failed. Most surgeons and physicians thought him a little mad. It did not discourage him. He continued his research and experiments—yes, with real human subjects. I am hopeful that these were adults who consented.
|The Cow Pock by Gillray--Vaccination causing cows to happen!|
By the Regency, Jenner’s ideas were growing in acceptance. Medical societies were formed around immunization research, and by 1840, Great Britain outlawed the use of variolazation to immunize against smallpox. To this day, we refer to those nasty shots against disease as vaccinations from the Latin vaca, which means cow.
You can find more about Edward Jenner and Blossom, including pictures of her horns, at http://www.jennermuseum.com/
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