Dr Jenner's House

Our visit to the Jenner museum occurred at the time when coronavirus was beginning to be discussed in the UK. As part of the day, we gave presentations on different aspects of coronavirus – I discussed how coronavirus had been handled in China. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – I rather casually mentioned that certain social measures might be taken to contain the virus in the UK soon, but I failed to truly appreciate what lockdown would look like.  

We have so much scientific knowledge and technology at our disposal – and a virus has still managed to turn our world upside down. Edward Jenner (1749-1823) had so little science and technology available to him, and yet his work started an epic battle against smallpox that resulted in its eradication in 1980. 

 

The Jenner museum is located in Jenner’s original house and garden – a large but unspectacular place tucked away in Berkeley. The ordinary spring loveliness of the garden seemed incongruent with the world-changing work that had happened within it.  

Smallpox was a terrible disease - a third of people who contracted smallpox died from it and survivors were often left with extensive scarring and some became blind. Before Jenner, people practiced variolation – fluid was taken from smallpox blisters (either from a patient (or someone who had undergone variolation) and this fluid was rubbed into scratches on the skin of a person. This person would usually have smallpox of a milder variant than naturally acquired smallpox. 

Jenner realised that cowpox could be used in a similar manner. This would present less risk as cowpox was a much milder disease than smallpox. He publicised his insights and administered free vaccination to locals in a garden hut. (Our re-enactment is in the photo.) Despite anti-vaccination feeling in the general public, and debate within the medical professional, vaccination replaced variolation. Napoleon was one of Jenner’s admirers – calling him ‘one of the greatest benefactors of mankind’. 

I agree. We are shielded from the harshness of nature by our access to medical care - we forget just how awful some diseases are. Perhaps this partly explains why vaccination is still regarded with suspicion rather than appreciation. (There are of course other reasons.) Following the World Health Organisation on Facebook, I was shocked by the vitriol directed towards it in comments. When I mentioned the work of WHO in eradicating smallpox, people responded with nonsensical conspiracy theories, fake information about smallpox being transmitted through vaccination, and ignorance about what suffering from smallpox entailed. We certainly need the education that the Jenner museum provides! 

I really would recommend a visit - once it is open again. Why not take a look at their website? Due to lockdown, the museum has lost a significant source of income, although its work remains more important than ever. Perhaps consider a donation?

Sonya Bushell

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