The Myth of Edward Jenner
The Milkmaid Story and Other Tales of Vaccination
Edward Jenner is the ‘founding father’ in vaccine ideology. The official narrative holds that Jenner was some sort of genius, who discovered cowpox inoculation and thus saved millions of lives from smallpox. So let’s discuss Edward Jenner and his theories, from a critical perspective.
Did Jenner Discover Vaccination?
The short answer to this question is no. Jenner was not the first person to practice a cowpox inoculation to protect from smallpox. A farmer called Benjamin Jesty is known to have used a needle to scratch the cowpox virus into the arms of his wife and sons several years before Jenner. The idea of cowpox protection was not invented by either, but existed as rural rumour in certain parts of the country (see below on milkmaids). The beginnings of the ideology behind vaccination already existed in the practice of smallpox inoculation, that is, deliberately infecting people with smallpox to attempt to induce a mild disease rather than risk natural infection. Inoculation goes back a long time in certain parts of the world, such as China, and was introduced into the UK in 1721 by Lady Mary Montagu. Although there is a valid distinction drawn in histories of smallpox, ideologically inoculation is vaccination as we would use the term today, that is attempting to induce a mild form of the disease via artificial means (i.e. the lancet) to avoid natural infection.1
The Milkmaid Myth
Jenner’s encounter with a milkmaid is often outlined as the first exposure of the young Jenner to the cowpox-smallpox theory of protection.
It is a story often told. The author vaguely remembers hearing it in secondary school when she studied the history of medicine. When Jenner was 13, he was said to have overheard a milkmaid discussing her alleged immunity to smallpox based upon having had a cowpox infection.
As the story goes, an English milkmaid told physician Edward Jenner that she would never get smallpox — a deadly disease and a leading cause of blindness — because she had had cowpox, a mild, uncommon illness in cattle that can spread to humans through sores on a cow’s udder. The milkmaid’s reasoning — that infection with cowpox protected her from smallpox — was a common belief among dairy workers
This is said to have interested the young Jenner in the issue of cowpox as a smallpox preventative. The story has been used for decades to promote the myth of vaccination.
Alas this story is most likely untrue.
It is one of those tales, that when one thinks about it for a moment, has a mythical quality. But we can go further than this.
The above account was first related by a man called John Baron, who was Jenner’s official biographer after his death. Baron was well known for his sycophancy, to the extent that even modern pro-vaccinationists have considered this excessive. According to Crookshank, an anti-vaccinationist who studied the issue carefully in the late nineteenth century, Fosbrooke, the first biographer of Jenner, did not mention this incident (p.127). While Crookshank does not question the whole incident, Baron’s well known sycophancy and desire to give Jenner priority for the vaccine ‘discovery’ gives him a strong motive to fabricate the tale. (And let’s be honest, the idea is rather romantic and makes a good story).
Interestingly, a modern historian, Bolyston, has published an article suggesting that the idea is a myth and that Jenner got the idea from Fewston.
Jenner’s ‘Extensive’ Research
If Jenner did not originate the idea and did not perform the first vaccinations, what was his contribution? One could suggest Jenner’s writings on the topic formalising the idea. This is where Jenner does have some claim, since it seems he was the first to formally put forward in print the idea of cowpox vaccination. However, we can ask ourselves what this research actually amounted to. Men such as Baron would have us believe that Jenner’s works on the topic were filled with extensive research and strong scientific methodology. What is the truth?
Jenner’s initial paper on cowpox, An Inquiry Into the Causes and Effects of the Variolæ Vaccinæ, was published in 1798. However, there was an earlier version of the paper. Jenner was a member of the Royal Society due to a paper he had published about cuckoos. He sent this earlier version of the paper to the Royal Society in 1796 – however they rejected the paper. They thought that it might negatively affect Jenner’s reputation.
For our purposes, we will only focus on the evidence Jenner brings forward for the claim that cowpox protects against smallpox and not about Jenner’s other speculations (about the origins of cowpox, etc). If we look at the original 1796 paper, that Jenner considered worthy of Royal Society publication, we can examine the evidence Jenner had for his theory. Crookshank discusses the 1796 rejected paper in detail.
For his evidence, Jenner first lists 10 ‘cowpoxed milkers’, that is, 10 milkers who had natural cowpox infections (some a long time ago). These milkers proved insusceptible to smallpox inoculation. Then Jenner outlines the case of his first vaccination, that of the 8-year-old James Phipps. He vaccinated Phipps with cowpox, and then several weeks later inoculated him for smallpox. The inoculation did not ‘take’, thus proving in Jenner’s mind the theory of protection. This is the sum total of the evidence for cowpox inoculation in the 1796 version of the paper (Chapter 7). The 1798 paper adds some more evidence, a couple more cases of milkers and a chain of cowpox inoculations (although, it seems he only performed the inoculation test on 3 of those, plus Phipps). Jenner drew the conclusion from this evidence that cowpox provided life long protection against smallpox infection.
As we can see from this discussion, Jenner had limited evidence for his claims and draws excessive conclusions from this limited evidence.
1 for accuracy, the Chinese used a method of putting smallpox sores in the nose, but the method used in Europe involved the lancet.