10 Facts On Edward Jenner And His Smallpox Vaccine


Edward Anthony Jenner was an English scientist who is famous for developing the smallpox vaccine and thereby leading the way in the ultimate eradication of one of the most deadly diseases in the history of mankind. Here are 10 interesting facts about the life and contributions of Jenner, who is considered “the father of immunology”.


#1 Edward was orphaned when he was only five years old

Edward Jenner was born on 17 May 1749 in the small town Berkeley, located in Gloucestershire, England. He was the eighth of nine children born to Reverend Stephen Jenner and his wife Sarah. His father Stephen was the vicar of Berkeley. In 1754, when Edward was only five years old, both his parents passed away. He was raised by his siblings. In 1788, Jenner married Catherine Kingscote. They had three children Edward (1789), Catherine (1794) and Robert (1797). While Catherine and Robert outlived Jenner, his eldest son Edward died of tuberculosis in 1810. Jenner’s wife had health issues throughout her life and she too died of tuberculosis in 1815.

Edward Jenner
Edward Jenner


#2 He was variolated when he was a child

The common procedure to counter smallpox (Variola) at the time was variolation. Variolation was carried out by introducing mild smallpox matter into an individual. The patient would then develop smallpox less severe than if he acquired the disease naturally. If the symptoms subsided in a few weeks the patient recovered and developed immunity against the disease. Though usually successful, this method was not fool proof and resulted in several deaths. Edward Jenner was variolated as a child and suffered from high fever but was able to survive. However this had a lifelong effect on his general health.

Smallpox Sufferer
Smallpox sufferer in the United States, 1912


#3 Jenner apprenticed under the famous surgeon John Hunter

In 1763, Jenner became an apprentice to a nearby surgeon named Daniel Ludlow. He trained under Ludlow for seven years gaining important experience which proved beneficial to him in his career. Then he joined St. George’s Hospital in London where he apprenticed in surgery and anatomy under one of the most renowned surgeons of the time, John Hunter. Jenner and Hunter remained friends and correspondents till Hunter’s death in 1793.


#4 He almost died while visiting a patient

In 1772, Edward Jenner returned to his hometown Berkeley and started practicing as a local doctor and surgeon. Edward was known for his dedication as a doctor and sometimes traveled huge distances in bad weather to make home visits to patients. In one such instance he nearly killed himself while traveling about ten miles from home during a blizzard to visit a patient at Kingscote. Later in life Jenner established medical practices in London and Cheltenham but Berkeley always remained his priority.

Portrait of Edward Jenner
Portrait of Edward Jenner by James Northcote


#5 He wrote a paper to correct a misconception over Cuckoo’s behavior

A cuckoo lays a single egg in the nest of a bird of different species. All the eggs and young ones of the other bird disappear and only the young cuckoo survives. It is then raised by the foster parents who don’t realize that it is not theirs. It was believed that the adult cuckoo pushes the hosts eggs and fledglings out of the nest. Edward Jenner wrote a paper that claimed it was the newly hatched cuckoo that eradicated its competition. Jenner observed that the cuckoo fledgling had a depression on its back that enabled it to cup eggs and other fledglings; and push them out. The depression disappears in 12 days. This was not confirmed until the twentieth century when photography became available.

Fledgling Cuckoo eliminating competition
Fledgling cuckoo ejecting an egg of its foster parents


#6 James Phipps was the first person given the cowpox vaccine by Edward Jenner

Jenner was aware of the country lore that people who had cowpox, a disease similar to smallpox but relatively mild, became immune to smallpox. Also his two dairymaids who had had cowpox treated smallpox patients without any ill effects. Jenner theorized that the pus in the blisters of people who had cowpox protected them from smallpox. In May 1796, Jenner tested his hypothesis by introducing live cowpox into the arm of James Phipps, an eight year old boy who was the son of Jenner’s gardener. Phipps became mildly ill but was well in a week. About six weeks later Jenner variolated Phipps but Phipps didn’t develop smallpox proving that the vaccination was a success.

Edward Jenner vaccinating James Phipps
A painting by Ernest Board of Dr. Edward Jenner performing his first vaccination on James Phipps


#7 Jenner’s discovery faced resistance due to several reasons

Despite Jenner proving that smallpox could be avoided by vaccination, his method didn’t catch on immediately. Firstly cowpox didn’t occur easily and hence doctors had to obtain cowpox matter from Jenner to test the method. Secondly the matter was often contaminated with smallpox as it was handled by doctors who worked in smallpox hospitals or carried out variolations. Also people feared the consequences of being treated with material from cows. Lastly there was opposition to vaccination on religious grounds on being treated with material from God’s lowlier creature. Despite these challenges the success of Jenner’s discovery soon spread across Europe. He received several tributes including the minting of a special medal by Napoleon in 1804 and the gift of a ring by the Empress of Russia.

Anti Smallpox Vaccine Cartoon
A cartoon from 1802 showing people with cow’s heads, after Jenner had vaccinated them


#8 He was not the first person to use vaccination against smallpox

More than two decades before Jenner’s vaccination five investigators in England and Germany successfully tested a cowpox vaccine against smallpox. Also in 1774, Dorset farmer Benjamin Jesty successfully vaccinated his wife and two children during an epidemic. But Edward Jenner was the first person to conduct the experiment openly and prove that people inoculated with cowpox were immune to smallpox. He also demonstrated that protective cowpox pus could be effectively inoculated from person to person, not just directly from cattle. More importantly it was due to his subsequent efforts that cowpox vaccine was adopted worldwide. Despite not being the first person to test it, Jenner is credited with discovering the cowpox vaccine.

Portrait of Benjamin Jesty
Benjamin Jesty – who performed vaccination before Jenner


#9 It is estimated that his work saved more lives than the work of any other human in history

In 1840, variolation was banned by an Act of Parliament and in 1853 vaccination with cowpox was made free and compulsory. In 1967, World Health Organization (WHO) launched its campaign to eradicate smallpox worldwide and in 1980 it formally declared: “Smallpox is Dead!” The most feared disease which had been prevalent since ancient times had been eradicated and Jenner’s dream was realized. It has been estimated that Edward Jenner’s work “saved more lives than the work of any other human”

WHO - Smallpox Zero
WHO logo certifying the eradication of smallpox


#10 Edward Jenner is called “the father of immunology”

On 25 January 1823, Jenner was found in a state of apoplexy with his right side paralyzed. The next day he died of an apparent stroke. Jenner’s vaccine laid the foundation of subsequent discoveries in immunology. About 100 years after Jenner’s work French scientist Louis Pasteur introduced vaccines against rabies and anthrax. For his pioneering work in the field Edward Jenner is called the “the father of immunology”. Statues have been erected in his honor and various things and places have been named after him including the lunar crater Jenner. In a UK wide poll conducted by BBC in 2002, Edward Jenner was named in the list of the 100 Greatest Britons.

7 thoughts on “10 Facts On Edward Jenner And His Smallpox Vaccine”

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  3. You should include what happened to his son, Edward. He suffered mental retardation, poor health and died at 21 years after being repeatedly vaccinated by his father.

    • This is a little confusing. The son he vaccinated was about a year old at the time, whereas Edward was 7 years old at the time of the experiment on James Phipps, which leads me to suppose it must be Robert he inoculated. In fact, there is mention in his paper of one Robert F Jenner, age 11 months. He died at 57.
      James Phipps lived to the age of 65, though one anti-vax site says he died of TB at 21 like Edward jr.
      therefusers refers to Edward as having been 10 months old. I wanted to see whether he’d inoculated both boys, but clearly somebody has been confused about which boy was which.

    • According to this ref ~ Darren R. Flower (2008). “Bioinformatics for Vaccinology”. p. 24ff. John Wiley & Sons, Jenner’s son Edward died at 21 after having health problems for much of his life.


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