Jenner, Edward (1749–1823)

Citation metadata

Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of World Scientists, Rev. ed.
Publisher: Facts On File
Series: Facts on File Science Library
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 1
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: May 17, 1749 in Berkeley, England
Died: January 26, 1823 in Berkeley, United Kingdom
Nationality: British
Occupation: Physician
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Jenner, Edward (1749–1823)


Though Edward Jenner was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1789 for his studies of the cuckoo, he is best known for his discovery of the smallpox vaccine. Considered the founder of immunology and a pioneer of virology, Jenner was responsible not only for introducing the practice of vaccination but also for coining the term virus. A tireless advocate of the cause of vaccination, Jenner saved innumerable human lives from the deadly smallpox virus.

Born on May 17, 1749, in Berkeley, a small town in Gloucestershire, England, Jenner was the youngest of six children. He grew up in a family of clergy. His father, Stephen Jenner, was rector of Rockhampton and vicar of Berkeley. Jenner's mother was the daughter of a former vicar of Berkeley. When Jenner's parents died, he was only five years old and was raised by an older brother, who had become rector of Rockhampton. As a young boy Jenner gained a love of nature and spent hours exploring the countryside for fossils.

It was standard practice for surgeons to acquire training and education through apprenticeships, and thus Jenner, at the age of 13, was apprenticed to a nearby surgeon. After his eight-year apprenticeship Jenner went to London in 1770 to study anatomy and surgery under John Hunter, who later became a prominent surgeon. Hunter instilled in Jenner an interest in biological phenomena, keen observational skills, and a trust in experimental investigation. The two developed a deep and long-lasting friendship.

In 1773 Jenner returned to Berkeley and opened a medical practice. Popular and successful, Jenner found time to participate in medical organizations, play music, and, an ardent naturalist, make observations in natural history. In particular, he made significant discoveries by studying the migration of birds and observing the nesting habits of cuckoos. In 1788 he married Katherine King-scote; the couple had four children.

Jenner was equally busy and observant in his medical practice, and he soon began to uncover the key to smallpox prevention. Smallpox was common in the 18th century, and sporadic intense outbreaks resulted in a high fatality rate. Inoculation was the only preventative measure available at the time, and it consisted of infecting a healthy person with matter from smallpox pustules taken from a patient suffering from a mild case of the disease. In this manner the healthy individual would acquire a mild case of smallpox and build up an immunity against subsequent infection. The problem, unfortunately, was that inoculation was not foolproof—all cases were not mild and occasionally the inoculated patient died. Jenner began to inoculate patients against smallpox and observed that some patients appeared to be immune to the disease. Upon further investigation he learned that these patients had previously been afflicted with cowpox, a disease contracted from cattle. Jenner then concluded that cowpox could prevent smallpox.

To test his new theory, Jenner inoculated a healthy young boy with matter taken from a patient's fresh cowpox lesions. The boy developed a slight fever and a small lesion. Two months later Jenner inoculated the boy with smallpox matter, to which the boy had no reaction. Jenner outlined his findings in a paper and submitted it to the Royal Society in 1797, but it was rejected. The following year Jenner printed at his own expense a small publication describing his findings.

The practice of vaccination spread rapidly after the publication of Jenner's work, and the death rate from smallpox decreased. Jenner devoted much of his life to supporting the cause of vaccination. He was awarded an honorary M.D. degree from the University of Oxford in 1813, and in the early 1800s the British government granted him £30,000 for his discovery. After his wife's death, in 1815, Jenner remained in Berkeley and returned to his studies in natural history.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4065100459