Dr Edward Jenner
A few months ago I watched Andrew Marr’s series on the History of the World. Tucked away at the end of one program following revelations about war and the conquest of Latin America etc, Andrew did a short piece from fields close to my own home in Gloucestershire. In it he focussed on the work of Dr Edward Jenner, the man credited with inventing the first vaccine for smallpox.
The reason he told this story is that smallpox is the first major disease to have been conquered by mankind following the pioneering work of Edward Jenner. A disease which killed up to 500 million people in the 20th century is now consigned to test tubes in research laboratories. Edward Jenner could arguably claim to have saved more lives than any other individual throughout history.
The reason I am writing this blog about Jenner and smallpox are the similarities in approach which I believe lie behind the Empower Access to Medicine campaign and Jenner’s own. We’ve touched on the first minor one, which is location - Jenner was educated in my local market town, Wotton-under-Edge and his practice was around Berkeley. Much more importantly, he, amongst others, had observed that exposure to cowpox seemed to provide immunity to subsequent outbreaks of smallpox. Spurred on by the teachings of William Harvey, whose motto was ‘Don’t think, try’, Jenner vaccinated a number of people, including his own baby son, with cowpox and then later exposed them to smallpox. The way in which he operated would break all the rules and ethics of medical experimentation advocated today – but it worked. Building upon the evidence gained, Jenner published papers regarding the use of vaccination to eradicate smallpox and, supported by petitions to Parliament and the Crown, was able to get this huge change in medicine through Parliament.
Since his time medicine has moved towards being more a deductive science than an experimental one – for good reasons in many cases. But there are many instances in which active experimentation (with the consent of willing patients) could prove invaluable i.e. in hastening medical discoveries. This is exactly what the Access to Medicine campaign is trying to do and we can look to someone as noted as Edward Jenner as leading the way.