American Pharmacist Month Blog Series: Edward Jenner & The Cure for Smallpox

Contributed by: Jasiris Boccheciamp, Class of 2019, Fall 2016 History of Pharmacy

Edward Jenner is a prominent figure not only in pharmacy, but also in immunology and medicine. He was born on May 17, 1749 in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England. His interest in science and nature started when he was a young boy. His journey in developing a vaccine for smallpox started once he began his career as an apprentice to a country surgeon. He became the apprentice of George Harwicke at the young age of 13, and this lasted until the age of 21. It was during this apprenticeship he noticed dairymaids did not contract smallpox, because they have been exposed to cowpox. Although it was a common belief at this time that there was a connection between smallpox and cowpox, Jenner became curious and wanted to discover why the dairymaids were protected from smallpox.

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Edward Jenner (1749–1823). Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

After the completion of this apprenticeship, he went further in his studies in medicine and became a student of John Hunter, a famous surgeon, biologist, anatomist, and experimental scientist. He was under his teaching for two years and learned a lot about clinical surgery and pharmacy compounding by creating an improved method to prepare tar emetic (potassium antimony tartrate).

In 1796, he made his first stride towards eradicating smallpox. While thinking about his earlier encounters with dairymaids and their protection from this disease by being exposed to cowpox first, he came to the conclusion that in addition to cowpox being protective against smallpox, it could also be transmitted from person to person and be protective to them. In May of 1796, Jenner came across Sarah Nelms, a dairymaid, who had lesions on her hands and arms due to the cowpox virus. He was able to inoculate the virus and infect an 8-year-old boy by the name of James Phipps. Phipps suffered through a mild fever and discomfort around his armpit. His symptoms changed in a few days, and by Day 9, he felt cold and had decreased appetite. However, this didn’t last very long, and by Day 10, he felt better. Jenner inoculated Phipps with the smallpox virus 2 months later, and no disease developed. This was the first major step in eradicating the virus because he had supporting evidence that the cowpox virus did indeed provide protection against smallpox.

With his first official experiment under his belt, he decided to spread the news of this discovery with others by writing a short paper to the Royal Society with details of his experiment in 1797. The paper was rejected, but Jenner believed he was on the verge of something great, so he continued his experiments. In 1798, he privately published a small booklet on his findings. He then took one step further in his research by going to London and looking for volunteers to vaccinate. In 1799, Jenner was able to distribute the vaccine through the help of Drs. George Pearson and William Woodville by distributing this vaccine to their patients. He conducted a survey that confirmed his initial theory. The vaccine later spread to other European cities until reaching the United States.

Edward Jenner was a remarkable figure who was driven by his curiosity and determination. His background in medicine was a stepping stone in the development of a vaccine against a viral disease that is now eradicated. He performed the world’s first vaccination, and this paved the way for the development of all of the vaccines that are available today and are available to be administered by pharmacists. Edward Jenner was a trendsetter in his own right, and his contribution to the world of medicine and pharmacy is immeasurable.

Works Cited:

Riedel, S. (2005). Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination. Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center), 18(1), 21–25.

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