|Me in Hyde Park, with Edward Jenner|
Smallpox had been a scourge on mankind throughout written history. Ancient writings about it were found in a medical book from India, dating from as early as 1500 BC. King Ramses V had been infected by it, cases found in China dating at least 1100 BC. It made no distinction between classes, it knew no boundaries, afflicting the poor and rich alike. Those who were "lucky" enough to survive would be left with permanent scarring. It is a virus mostly transmitted via close contact and droplets coughed by the infected individual. The virus could even be spread via infected cloths, incidentally how the British conquered the Americas when General Jeffrey Amherst gave Native Americans blankets carrying the smallpox virus, quickly decimating the previously unexposed population. The afflicted remained contagious until the last scab healed. There was no treatment available. The only way it could be controlled was with vaccination. And thanks to extensive immunisation programmes the last known wild case of smallpox was in Somalia, in 1977. But it is known that there are vials of smallpox left in both the US and in Russia.
John Fewster, a friend of Jenner's, and a farmer named Benjamin Jesty. They had observed and reported that milkmaids infected with cowpox were invariably immune to smallpox, this essentially started the mass immunization programs. In essence he didn't discover vaccinations, he popularised it.
Jenner first experimented on eight year old James Phipps, injecting a small amount of cowpox into his arm. After James had recovered from the inoculation Jenner attempted to infect him with smallpox. Neither James nor the children who shared his bed developed smallpox, thus discovering herd immunity. His theories were revolutionary for the time and a lot of people refused to believe them. With the advent of vaccinations came the Anti-Vaccine Movement. Because the idea was so mind blowing even the establishment initially refused to believe it, leading Edward Jenner to do further experiments with more children, including his own child.
By today's standards these were extremely unethical experiments. But thanks to these experiments Jenner managed to convince the establishment of the effectiveness of his method, replacing the more dangerous variolation. Jenner was reportedly an extremely generous man, when James Phipps had married later in life and had children of his own, Jenner gave him a free lease on a house. He refused to use the discovery to make himself rich. Instead he'd devote his time to vaccinating as many people as possible, even negotiating to vaccinate French soldiers in exchange for British Prisoners of War. By 1840 variolation was confined to the past and Jenner's form of immunisation had taken over.
In addition to his research on vaccinations he also made some great headway into research on Angina Pectoris.
Without Edward Jenner there is a very good chance that we would still be dealing with mass epidemics of deadly, dangerous and disfiguring illnesses like smallpox, measles and polio. I believe Jenner's research into vaccinations was as important as John Snow's sanitation investigation, Joseph Lister’s insistence on equipment sterilisation, Ignaz Semmelweis preoccupation with the importance of hospital staffs hand-washing and Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin.
Vaccines save lives.
Edward Jenner was a hero. Even Napoleon accepted that.
History Of Vaccines
BBC: History, Edward Jenner.
History of Immunology by Arthur Silverstein
Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination, by Stefan Riedel.