Jenner was inspired by the milkmaid’s comments to devise a much better solution: a harmless but effective injection to confer immunity. He hypothesised that if he gave mild cowpox to people, it would stimulate some sort of internal safety system to protect people against smallpox. In an era of blood-letting leeches and purgatives of mercury, this was a revolutionary concept. No-one then knew about immune systems. In many ways, Jenner was centuries ahead of his time.
It is not known whether his first subject, James Phipps – the gardener’s eight-year-old son – volunteered or even knew what he was in for, but Jenner didn’t take his contribution lightly.
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The boy survived the process, was thereafter immune to the deadly disease circulating in the area and proved a theory that has gone on to save millions. Jenner demonstrated the world’s gratitude to James by giving him a house. Visitors can walk down a leafy path from Jenner’s home to see Phipps Cottage, now a private home marked by a plaque in Church Lane.
In the corner of his own garden, Jenner playfully named the shed where he’d given James’ injection “The Temple of Vaccinia” and characterised himself as the “faithful priest of vaccination”. Somewhat amazingly, this quirky structure of stone, bark and thatch survives. Perhaps it should become a shrine to the millions that immunisation has saved from many diseases since, including smallpox (now completely eradicated thanks to vaccines), HIV, and, of course, Covid.
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