Born on May 17, 1749 in the small village of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, Edward Jenner was a keen observer of nature and after nine years as a surgeon’s apprentice he went to St George’s Hospital, London to study anatomy and surgery under the prominent surgeon John Hunter.
After completing his studies, he returned to Berkeley to set up a medical practice where he stayed until his death in 1823. In 1788 an epidemic of smallpox hit Gloucestershire and during this outbreak Jenner observed that those of his patients who worked with cattle and had come in contact with the much milder disease called cowpox never came down with smallpox.
In 1796 with the help of James Phipps, the son of a local farmer, Jenner confirmed his theory that by deliberately infecting a subject with cowpox that they would then become vaccinated (a term he coined himself from the Latin for cowpox, Variolae Vaccinae) against smallpox.
The only way to test this theory was to then deliberately infect the brave Phipps with smallpox. Needless to say had this experiment not gone to plan, the career of Edward Jenner might have taken a decided turn for the worse and possibly even seen him imprisoned as a murderer.
This was not to be the case and instead Jenner made a medical breakthrough that has saved countless lives, possible the greatest life saving discovery in the history of medicine. However, much to his dismay, the discovery was initially met with a great deal of scepticism and ridicule.
Jenner persevered and eventually after much campaigning, doctors found that vaccination did work and by 1800 most were using it. Jenner was awarded £30 000 by Parliament to enable him to continue carrying out his tests. Deaths from smallpox plummeted and vaccination spread through Europe and North America. Jenner died in Berkeley on January 26, 1823 aged 74.