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Edward Jenner
(17 May 1749 - 26 Jan 1823)

English physician and surgeon who discovered vaccination for smallpox

An Inquiry Into the Causes and Effects of ... Cow Pox

by Edward Jenner (1798)

As abridged in The Library of Original Sources

Title page from Edward Jenner's self-published book (1798)
Title page from Edward Jenner's self-published book (1798)

[p.404] Edward Jenner was born May 17, 1749, at Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England. He studied surgery under John Hunter, the comparative anatomist, at London, and began practice in his native town.

About 1796 he was told that milkmaids who had caught the cow-pox were immune from the small-pox, and at once began experimenting on the subject. In 1798 in his “Inquiry” he made his vaccination theory public. This at once excited the greatest interest and vaccination spread rapidly. In 1801 10,000 persons were vaccinated in England. A great discussion arose over the utility and healthfulness of vaccination, but the theory and practice have on the whole much more than held their ground. The general effect has certainly been to decrease the malignity and spread of the disease. In Chemnitz, France, 1870-1871, an epidemic swept through the town. Of the population 53,891 had been vaccinated, 5,712 had not been. Of the vaccinated 953 caught the disease and .0073 of these died; of the unvaccinated 2,643 and the disease and .916 died. Jenner died January 16, 1823.


(The Theory Of Vaccination)

The deviation of Man from the state in which he was originally placed by Nature seems to have proved to him a prolific source of Diseases. From the love of splendour, from the indulgences of luxury, and from his fondness for amusement, he has familiarised himself with a great number of animals, which may not originally have been intended for his associates.

The Wolf, disarmed of ferocity, is now pillowed in the lady’s lap. The Cat, the little Tyger of our island, whose natural home is the forest, is equally domesticated and caressed. The Cow, the Hog, the Sheep, and the Horse, are all, for a variety of purposes, brought under his care and dominion.

There is a disease to which the Horse, from his state of domestication, [p.405]  is frequently subject. The Farriers have termed it the Grease. It is an inflammation and swelling in the heel, from which issues matter possessing properties of a very peculiar kind, which seems capable of generating a disease in the Human Body (after it has undergone the modification which I shall presently speak of), which bears so strong a resemblance to the Small-pox that I think it highly probable it may be the source of that disease.

In this Dairy Country a great number of Cows are kept, and the office of milking is performed indiscriminately by Men and Maid Servants. One of the former having been appointed to apply dressings to the heels of a Horse affected with the Grease, and not paying due attention to cleanliness, incautiously bears his part in milking the Cows, with some particles of the infectious matter adhering to his fingers. When this is the case, it commonly happens that a disease is communicated to the Cows, and from the Cows to the Dairy-maids, which spreads through the farm until most of the cattle and domestics feel its unpleasant consequences. This disease has obtained the name of the Cow-pox. It appears on the nipples of the Cows in the form of irregular pustules. At their first appearance they are commonly of a palish blue, or rather of a colour somewhat approaching to livid, and are surrounded by an erysipelatous inflammation. These pustules, unless a timely remedy be applied, frequently degenerate into phagedenic ulcers, which prove extremely troublesome. The animals become indisposed, and the secretion of milk is much lessened. Inflamed spots now begin to appear on different parts of the hands of the domestics employed in milking, and sometimes on the wrists, which quickly run on to suppuration, first assuming the appearance of the small vesications produced by a burn. Most commonly they appear about the joint of the fingers, and at their extremities; but whatever parts are affected, if the situation will admit, these superficial suppurations put on a circular form, with their edges more elevated than their centre, and of a colour distantly approaching to blue. Absorption takes place, and tumours appear in each axilla. The system becomes affected—the pulse is quickened; and shiverings, with general lassitude and pains about the loins and limbs, with vomiting, come on. The head is painful, and the patient is now and then even affected with delirium. These symptoms, varying in their degrees of violence, generally continue from one day to three or four, leaving ulcerated sores about the hands, which, from the sensibility of the parts, are very troublesome, and commonly heal slowly, frequently becoming [p.406]  phagedenic, like those from whence they sprung. The lips, nostrils, eyelids, and other parts of the body, are sometimes affected with sores; but these evidently arise from their being needlessly rubbed or scratched with the patient’s infected fingers. No eruptions on the skin have followed the decline of the feverish symptoms in any instance that has come under my inspection, one only excepted, and in this case a very few appeared on the arms: they were very minute, of a vivid red colour, and soon died away without advancing to maturation; so that I cannot determine whether they had any connection with the preceding symptoms.

Thus the disease makes its progress from the Horse to the nipple of the Cow, and from the Cow to the Human Subject.

Plate 1. A large pustulous sore on the hand of dairymaid
Plate 1. A large pustulous sore on the hand of dairymaid Sarah Nelmes, infected with Cow Pox from her master's cows. The pustule on the forefinger shows the disease in an earlier stage, as had been seen on another woman, and annexed to this plate for the purpose of illustration of the malady after it has newly appeared.

Morbid matter of various kinds, when absorbed into the system, may produce effects in some degree similar; but what renders the Cow-pox virus so extremely singular is, that the person who has been thus affected is forever after secure from the infection of the Small-pox; neither exposure to the variolous effluvia, nor the insertion of the matter into the skin producing this distemper.

In support of so extraordinary a fact, I shall lay before my Reader a great number of instances.

[I shall now conclude this Inquiry with some general observations on the subject, and on some others which are interwoven with it.]

Although I presume it may be unnecessary to produce further testimony in support of my assertion “that Cow-pox protects the human constitution from the infection of the Small-pox,” yet it affords me considerable satisfaction to say that Lord Somerville, the president of the Board of Agriculture, to whom this paper was shown by Sir Joseph Banks, has found upon inquiry that the statements were confirmed by the concurring testimony of Mr. Dolland, a surgeon, who resides in a dairy country remote from this, in which these observations were made. With respect to the opinion adduced “that the source of the infection is a peculiar morbid matter arising in the horse,” although I have not been able to prove it from actual experiments conducted immediately under my own eye, yet the evidence I have adduced appears sufficient to establish it.

They who are not in the habit of conducting experiments may not [p.407] in professional pursuits are liable to interruptions which disappoint them almost at the instant of their being accomplished.

[However, I feel no room for hesitation respecting the common origin of the disease, being well convinced that it never appears among the cows (except it can be traced to a cow introduced among the general herd which has been previously infected, or to an infected servant), unless they have been milked by someone who, at the same time, has the care of a horse affected with diseased heels.

The spring of the year 1797, which I intended particularly to have devoted to the completion of this investigation, proved, from its dryness, remarkably adverse to my wishes; for it frequently happens, while the farmers’ horses are exposed to the cold rains which fall at that season that their heels become diseased, and no Cow-pox then appeared in the neighbourhood.]

The active quality of the virus from the horses’ heels is greatly increased after it has acted on the nipples of the cow, as it rarely happens that the horse affects his dresser with sores, and as rarely that a milk-maid escapes the infection when she milks infected cows. It is most active at the commencement of the disease, even before it has acquired a pus-like appearance; indeed I am not confident whether this property in the matter does not entirely cease as soon as it is secreted in the form of pus. I am induced to think it does cease, and that it is the thin darkish-looking fluid only, oozing from the newly-formed cracks in the heels, similar to what sometimes appears from erysipelatous blisters, which gives the disease. Nor am I certain that the nipples of the cows are at all times in a state to receive the infection. The appearance of the disease in the spring and the early part of the summer, when they are disposed to be affected with spontaneous eruptions so much more frequently than at other seasons, induces me to think that the virus from the horse must be received upon them when they are in this state, in order to produce effects: experiments, however, must determine these points. But it is clear that when the Cow-pox virus is once generated, that the cows cannot resist the contagion, in whatever state their nipples may chance to be, if they are milked with an infected hand.

Whether the matter, either from the cow or the horse, will affect the sound skin of the human body, I cannot positively determine; probably it will not, unless on those parts where the cuticle is extremely thin, as on the lips for example. I have known an instance of a poor girl who produced an ulceration on her lip by frequently holding her finger to her mouth to cool the raging of a Cow-pox sore by blowing [p.408] upon it. The hands of the farmers’ servants here, from the nature of their employments, are constantly exposed to those injuries which occasion abrasions of the cuticle, to punctures from thorns and such like accidents; so that they are always in a state to feel the consequences of exposure to infectious matter.

[It is singular to observe that the Cow-pox virus, although it renders the constitution unsusceptible of the variolous, should, nevertheless, leave it unchanged with respect to its own action. I have already produced an instance to point out this, and shall now corroborate it with another.

Elizabeth Wynne, who had the Cow-pox in the year 1759, was inoculated with variolous matter, without effect, in the year 1797, and again caught the Cow-pox in the year 1798. When I saw her, which was on the 8th day after she received the infection, I found her infected with general lassitude, shiverings, alternating with heat, coldness of the extremities, and a quick and irregular pulse. These symptoms were preceded by a pain in the axilla. On her hand was one large pustulous sore, which resembled that delineated in Plate No. 1.]

It is curious also to observe that the virus, which with respect to its effects is undetermined and uncertain previously to its passing from the horse through the medium of the cow, should then not only become more active, but should invariably and completely possess those specific properties which induce in the human constitution symptoms similar to those of the variolous fever, and effect in it that peculiar change which forever renders it unsusceptible of the variolous contagion.

May it not then be reasonably conjectured that the source of the Small-pox is morbid matter of a peculiar kind, generated by a disease in the horse, and that accidental circumstances may have again and again arisen, still working new changes upon it, until it has acquired the contagious and malignant form under which we now commonly see it making its devastations amongst us? And, from a consideration of the change which the infectious matter undergoes from producing a disease on the cow, may we not conceive that many contagious diseases, now prevalent among us, may owe their present appearance not to a simple, but to a compound origin? For example, is it difficult to imagine that the measles, the scarlet fever, and the ulcerous sore throat with a spotted skin, have all sprung from the same source, assuming some variety in their forms according to the nature of their new combinations? The same question will apply respecting the origin of many other contagious diseases, which bear a strong analogy to each other.

[p.409] Small-pox appears in what is called the natural way. About seven years ago a species of Small-pox spread through many of the towns and villages of this part of Gloucestershire: it was of so mild a nature that a fatal instance was scarcely ever heard of, and consequently so little dreaded by the lower orders of the community that they scrupled not to hold the same intercourse with each other as if no infectious disease had been present among them. I never saw nor heard of an instance of its being confluent. The most accurate manner, perhaps, in which I can convey an idea of it is, by saying that had fifty individuals been taken promiscuously and infected by exposure to this contagion, they would have had as mild and light a disease as if they had been inoculated with variolous matter in the usual way. The harmless manner in which it showed itself could not arise from any peculiarity either in the season or the weather, for I watched its progress upwards of a year without perceiving any variation in its general appearance. I consider it then as a variety of the Small-pox.

[In some of the-preceding cases I have noticed the attention that was paid to the state of the variolous matter previous to the experiment of inserting it into the arms of those who had gone through the Cow-pox. This I conceived to be of great importance in conducting these experiments, and were it always properly attended to by those who inoculate for the Small-pox, it might prevent much subsequent mischief and confusion. With the view of enforcing so necessary a precaution, I shall take the liberty of digressing so far as to point out some unpleasant facts relative to mismanagement in this particular, which have fallen under my own observation.]

A medical gentleman (now no more), who for many years inoculated in this neighbourhood, frequently preserved the variolous mattre intended for his use, on a piece of lint or cotton, which, in its fluid state, was put into a vial, corked, and conveyed into a warm pocket; a situation certainly favourable for speedily producing putrefaction in it. In this state (not infrequently after it had been taken several days from the pustules) it was inserted into the arms of his patients, and brought on inflammation of the incised parts, swellings of the axillary glands, fever, and sometimes eruptions. But what was this disease? Certainly not the Small-pox; for the matter having from putrefaction lost, or suffered a derangement in its specific properties, was no longer capable of producing that malady, those who had been inoculated in this manner being as much subject to the contagion of the Small-pox, as if they had never been under the influennce of this artificial [p.410] disease, supposed to be the Small-pox, with inefficaceous variolous matter, having occurred under the direction of some other practitioners within my knowledge, and probably from the same incautious method of securing the variolous matter, I avail myself of this opportunity of mentioning what I conceive to be of great importance; and, as a further cautionary hint, I shall again digress so far as to add another observation on the subject of Inoculation.

Whether it be yet ascertained by experiment, that the quantity of variolous matter inserted into the skin makes any difference with respect to the subsequent mildness or violence of the disease, I know not; but I have the strongest reason for supposing that if either the punctures or incisions be made so deep as to go through it, and wound the adipose membrane, that the risk of bringing on a violent disease is greatly increased. I have known an inoculator, whose practice was “to cut deep enough (to use his own expression) to see a bit of fat,” and there to lodge the matter. The great number of bad cases, independent of inflammations and abscesses on the arms, and the fatality which attended this practice was almost inconceivable; and I cannot account for it on any other principle than that of the matter being placed in this situation instead of the skin.

At what period the Cow-pox was first noticed here is not upon record. Our oldest farmers were not unacquainted with it in their earliest days, when it appeared among their farms without any deviation from the phenomena which it now exhibits. Its connection with the Small-pox seems to have been unknown to them. Probably the general introduction of inoculation first occasioned the discovery.

Its rise in this country may not have been of very remote date, as the practice of milking cows might formerly have been in the hands of women only; which I believe is the case now in some other dairy countries, and consequently that the cows might not in former times have been exposed to the contagious matter brought by the men servants from the heels of horses. Indeed a knowledge of the source of the infection is new in the minds of most of the farmers in this neighbourhood, but it has at length produced good consequences; and it seems probable from the precautions they are now disposed to adopt, that the appearance of the Cow-pox here may either be entirely extinguished or become extremely rare.

Should it be asked whether this investigation is a matter of mere [p.411] the improvements which the practice has received since its first introduction into this country, it not very infrequently produces deformity of the skin, and sometimes, under the best management, proves fatal.

These circumstances must naturally create in every instance some degree of painful solicitude for its consequences. But as I have never known fatal effects arise from the Cow-pox, even when impressed in the most unfavourable manner, producing extensive inflammations and suppurations on the hands; and as it clearly appears that this disease leaves the constitution in a state of perfect security from the infection of the Small-pox, may we not infer that a mode of inoculation may be introduced preferable to that at present adopted, especially among those families which, from previous circumstances, we may judge to be predisposed to have the disease unfavourably? It is an excess in the number of pustules which we chiefly dread in the Small-pox; but, in the Cow-pox, no pustules appear, nor does it seem possible for the contagious matter to produce the disease from effluvia, or by any other means than contact, and that probably not simply between the virus and the cuticle; so that a single individual in a family might at any time receive it without the risk of infecting the rest, or of spreading a distemper that fills a country with terror.

[Several instances have come under my observation which justify the assertion that the disease cannot be propagated by effluvia. The first boy whom I inoculated with the matter of Cow-pox slept in a bed while the experiment was going forward, with two children who had never gone through either that disease or the Small-pox, without infecting either of them.

A young woman who had the Cow-pox to a great extent, several sores which maturated having appeared on the hands and wrists, slept in the same bed with a fellow-dairymaid who never had been infected with either the Cow-pox or the Small-pox, but no indisposition followed.

Another instance has occurred of a young woman on whose hands were several large suppurations from the Cow-pox, who was at the same time a daily nurse to an infant, but the complaint was not communicated to the child.]

In some other points of view the inoculation of this disease appears preferable to the variolous inoculation.

In constitutions predisposed to scrofula, how frequently we see the inoculated Small-pox rouse into activity that distressful malady. This circumstance does not seem to depend on the manner in which the distemper has shown itself, for it has as frequently happened among those who have had it mildly, as when it has appeared in the [p.412] skin, and who are in consequence haunted through life with the distressing idea of being insecure from subsequent infection. A ready mode of dissipating anxiety originating from such a cause must now appear obvious. And, as we have seen that the constitution may at any time be made to feel the febrile attack of Cow-pox, might it not, in many chronic diseases, be introduced into the system, with the probability of affording relief, upon well-known physiological principles?

Although I say the system may at any time be made to feel the febrile attack of Cow-pox, yet I have a single instance before me where the virus acted locally only, but it is not in the least probable that the same person would resist the action both of Cow-pox virus and the variolous.

Images from original book, title page & opp. 32 (source). From Edward Jenner, An Inquiry Into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae: A Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of the Cow Pox (1798), as abridged in Oliver Joseph Thatcher (ed.), The Library of Original Sources 1800-1833 (1907), Vol. 8, 404-412. (source)

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

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