A country doctor who changed our world


Those of us with European ancestry probably never heard that our very existence today depended on some English milkmaids and an obscure country doctor named Edward Jenner. It wasn’t proclamations by kings, generals and politicians who saved millions of lives, but rather, the most life-saving event of the last three centuries was the 1790 experiment by Dr. Jenner to create the world’s first vaccine for smallpox.

Smallpox had been around since prehistoric times. It reached epidemic proportions in Europe during the Middle Ages and made it to the Americas with the Spanish conquistadors, decimating the Aztecs and Incas. Early settlers of New England spread smallpox to our Native Americans who had no resistance to the disease. The importation of slaves from Africa also contributed to smallpox in America. In Europe during the 1700s, 400,000 people died annually from the disease; those who survived had disfiguring scars on their faces and bodies. The case/fatality rates were as high as 60 percent, particularly with children

Jenner, an English country doctor, was aware of local farmers’ belief that milkmaids who contracted cowpox become immune to outbreaks of smallpox; and those who survived smallpox never contracted the disease again. He decided it was more than folklore and was so confident in this belief that he began to experiment with humans by extracting discharge from a cowpox lesion and inoculating it on an eight-year-old boy. This was a dangerous experiment. If the boy died, Jenner could be charged with murder. After waiting six weeks, he exposed the boy to cowpox and later smallpox and the boy was unaffected. He repeated the experiment 28 times with other humans with equal success. (Jenner was warned that his patients might grow cow hoofs, horns and other cattle characteristics.)

Jenner had stumbled upon what we know today as immunity.

I recall as a four-year-old child being taken by my mother to our rural one-room schoolhouse where a nurse began jabbing my shoulder many times with a needle and applying vaccine to the wound that later scabbed and left me, like all of us children, with scars for life. Also during my childhood, polio epidemics occurred, and my parents kept me at our rural country home and warned me to stay away from “town and city kids.” A polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s by Dr. Jonas Salk, and now polio has almost been eradicated except in some remote areas in some Asian and African countries.

An intense world-wide immunization effort in the 1960s resulted with the last-known case of smallpox on this planet in 1977. Nowadays children receive a standard battery of immunizations for diphtheria, mumps, measles and rubella. In recent years an unsubstantiated belief surfaced that vaccinations caused autism in children. The CDC, American Academy of Pediatricians, and scores of studies all find there is no link between vaccines and autism.

There have been continuous challenges to the government’s right to interfere with parental rights to raise their children as they choose. The counterargument has been that parents must provide their children with food, clothing, shelter and health. The government has a right to protect the vulnerable. In 1905 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of mandatory smallpox vaccination programs to preserve public health. There has been an exception for long-standing religious beliefs, but compulsory vaccinations apply to children who attend public schools and rely on public medical facilities.

We now hear about the “herd effect” commonly defined as “when a high percentage of the population is protected through vaccination against a virus or bacteria, it becomes difficult for a disease to spread because there are so few susceptible people left to infect.”  It is particularly crucial for protecting people who cannot be vaccinated (too young, or due to weak immune system, allergies, etc.).

And just as there is that argument that the vaccinated herd protects certain children, some parents (called anti-vaxxers) oppose vaccination of their children with the controversial argument that their children should be allowed to associate with children in the “herd” because the unvaccinated cannot harm the protected “herd.”

Another controversy: Whether minors have the right to be vaccinated to protect themselves, regardless of what their parents believe.

In today’s society we have entertainers and athletes who are rewarded millions of dollars for their talents and yet do nothing for the furtherance of human life. Dr. Edward Jenner received a salary from the British government to continue his work but he never made efforts to enrich himself. Dr. Jonas Salk never sought a patent for his polio vaccine. Both saved millions of lives, and their discoveries continue to relieve human suffering throughout the world. Salk said it was his gift to the people.

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