Friday, November 25, 2011

The World's Most Famous Cow
by Guest Blogger Laurie Alice Eakes

Since we are discussing the Regency era, the long one often employed for the purposes of novels, you know I do not refer to the infamous cow who allegedly kicked over the lantern and started the Great Chicago fire of 1871. I refer to Blossom, a dairy cow and her dairymaid Sarah Nelmes.

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.

Then Edward Jenner came along.

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

Award-winning author Laurie Alice Eakes wanted to be a writer since knowing what one was. Her first book won the National Readers Choice Award in 2007, and her third book was a Carol Award finalist in 2010. Having her first book with Baker/Revell, Lady in the Mist, picked up by Crossings Book Club, and six of her books; have been chosen for large print editions by Thorndike Press. She has been a public speaker for as long as she can remember; thus, only suffers enough stage fright to keep her sharp. In 2002, while in graduate school for writing fiction, she began to teach fiction in person and online. She lives in Virginia with her husband, two dogs, and probably too many cats.

Visit Laurie at her website


Anne Gallagher said...

What an absolutely fascinating post. Especially the Latin. I had no idea.

Thanks again for another great post.

Carla Gade said...


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hello to L.A. land. No, not the location, but Lesley-Anne and Laurie Alice. (Yes, it gets boring in my little world sometimes.)

Great post, Laurie Alice. I followed your link on the ACFW historical loop.

And you were right - I was horrified as I read the experimentation of the boy. My thoughts ranged from how Jenner could try it on a child to the location of the boy's parents. But then I thought of the era and the working/lower classes of the time. A wee bit of coin probably changed hands in this transaction somewhere along the line I'd think.

Thanks for hosting Laurie Alice, Lesley-Anne. I haven't been to your site in ages and it's very well done. Kudos.

Anita Mae.

Susanne Dietze said...

What an interesting post. I always learn a great deal from you, Laurie Alice!

Thank you for hosting her, Lesley-Anne. I'm bookmarking this blog.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thank you all for visiting! I am always happy to welcome guest bloggers for they find such interesting topics to explore. And Laurie Alice is no exception--I never put together the 'vaca' in vaccination with 'cow'! I should have, I took a year or two of Latin :) Thanks, Laurie Alice!