Edward Jenner: Vaccinations and the prevention of smallpox

Edward Jenner’s vaccinations and the prevention of smallpox

Edward Jenner is one of the most celebrated scientists of British history. He introduced a vaccine for smallpox which saved countless lives. Yet, he didn’t really understand how his vaccine worked. Was he just lucky? Did Jenner work methodically in a scientific manner to develop his smallpox vaccine? Where did he get his ideas from, were they based on old methods, or totally new? There are many such questions that we can ask about Edward Jenner’s work. Once they have been assessed, it is possible to determine his significance in medical history and the role of various factors.

Teachers notes are at the foot of this page.

Edward Jenner and Smallpox

In this lesson you will:

  • watch a short and accessible video outlining the work of Edward Jenner.
  • identify the factors that enabled his Smallpox vaccine to be so successful
  • evaluate the importance of causal factors
  • analyse a contemporary image relating to Jenner’s work

Starter Activity

Watch this game show style interpretation of an interview with Edward Jenner. Note his achievements, his methods and the things that helped him towards his breakthrough.

Launch in external player

Title: Edward Jenner – the discovery of smallpox vaccine

Duration: 03:18

Description: Competing in a game show ‘The greatest science investigator of all time’, famous scientists from history describe their life’s work and explain why they deserve the title. On this show it’s the turn of Edward Jenner who tells the story of how he discovered the smallpox vaccine.

External link to BBC Class Clips.

Watch this game show style interview with ‘Edward Jenner’ and note down the different factors that led to his discovery. Also note the factors that led to the vaccine being widely used.

Notes about Jenner and Smallpox

About Smallpox

Smallpox was a big killer. It killed and maimed many people. It could
cause blindness and deafness. Those who survived were left horribly scarred.
It could devastate communities. Before Jenner came up with the idea of
vaccination there was no safe or effective prevention from smallpox. It
killed huge numbers each year.


This was done by taking some pus from a smallpox spot and putting it
into a scratch on the skin. The child would suffer a minor dose of smallpox
but would be immune to the full version of the disease. It was risky.
In many cases the full-strength smallpox was caught. Inoculation even
seemed to spread the smallpox more quickly than usual. Even so people
were so afraid of smallpox that they were prepared to take this risk.
Inoculation was brought to Britain by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She had
seen it being used in Turkey.

Jenner and vaccination.

He had experience of inoculating against smallpox. He knew that milkmaids
who had had cowpox did not get smallpox. He decided to test this ‘old
wives’ tale’ in 1796. He took some cowpox pus from a milkmaid
called Sarah Nelmes. Jenner then put this pus into a scratch that he had
made on the arm of an eight-year-old boy called James Phipps. Two months
later Jenner put some smallpox pus into another scratch on James Phipps’
arm. He did not develop smallpox. This was called ‘vaccination’
from the Latin ‘vacca’ meaning cow.


Earlier you were asked to identify the different factors that led to Jenner a) making his breakthrough and b) making the vaccine successful. Lots of things contributed to his success:

  • Chance
  • Individual Genius
  • Government backing
  • Support from senior scientists
  • Lack of alternatives
  • Technology
  • And others.

Add any additional factors to this list. Then as a pair or small group discuss how each played a role in the Smallpox story. Which factor(s) were the most important? Rank the factors into order of significance. Then make a note to justify your decision: you may be asked to share your thoughts with the rest of your class.

How did people react to Jenner?

His ideas were not accepted by everyone. Some of the medical profession
refused to accept his results. There were problems and mistakes. Sometimes
the vaccination was not done correctly. Sometimes the hospital mixed smallpox
fluid with cowpox fluid. No one would publish his work. He did not have
enough data to support his claims. Jenner had to pay for this to be done.
Some even believed that they might turn into cows.

Think about why people may have been scared of Jenner’s vaccine. Consider what previous experiences they had of injections, or ‘miracle cures’. It is easy to look back and think that people were plain silly to oppose the vaccine, though that does not take into account the situation at the time. Indeed, even well into the twentieth century medicines were being used that had a disastrous effect: See this article on Thalidomide as an example.

Jenner and Smallpox. A Cartton illustrating opposition to the vaccine.

An illustration from the anti-vaccine league outlining some of the fears
about the effect of vaccination. Download this word document and complete the source evaluation tasks.

How important was Jenner?

• His work was used worldwide.
• By 1853 vaccination in Britain was compulsory.
• He had shown that it was possible to fight disease.
• His idea could not be used for other diseases as he did not know
why it worked.
• Jenner had observed the possible benefits of cowpox.
• He did not know what caused smallpox (or cowpox).
• He did not know about germs.
• Men like Koch and Pasteur would take the fight against disease

Teachers Notes: Edward Jenner and the Smallpox Vaccine

This sequence of activities is designed to provide an overview of Jenner’s work, it’s significance and the opposition to it at the time. As such it does not attempt to go into great depth on any one aspect, it is presumed that such work will be done away from this set of activities.

The video selected as the starter is from BBC Classclips. It is a .wmv format file. It is chosen for it’s accessibility as much as it’s content. It provides a quick overview of the main points. This can lead to discussion about Jenner, who he was, what he did and whether the class think his worked would have been widely applauded at the time. You could also ask the class to predict what led to the breakthrough as that can then be referred to later in the lesson.

Identification of factors is a simple but important task. You may choose to give pupils packs of factors from which they simply select those that appear in the video and reading materials. These can then be sorted as part of the following discussion on significance.

The Cow Pock cartoon exercise is included to illustrate one interpretation of peoples views. Modern examples of parents worrying about MMR vaccinations are readily available online. Pupils themselves will know that many of themselves have been reluctant to have an injection at some stage. We have included a link to an article we wrote about Thalidomide to illustrate the extent to which medicines can go wrong. In Jenner’s day the cure all’s were common and society in general would have been aware of the dangers of untried medicines. An understanding of the context in which there was opposition to a vaccine that ultimately eradicated the disease, gives learners an edge over those who don’t grasp that.

There are some excellent alternative audio-visual materials on the Bafta winning Smallpox Through Time section of Timeline.tv. The producers consulted with teachers, ourselves included, to ensure that it meets the needs of teaches and learners at several stages of their education. There is a lot that is relevant to a GCSE course but equally it is useful for KS2 and KS3 lessons on this period.