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How significant were Edward Jenner’s vaccinations in the prevention of disease?

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 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 scientist 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 decide how significant his discoveries were. Then post your thoughts on this discussion wall about the significance of his work.




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.

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.

The Cow Pock - or the wonderful effects of the new incoculation!

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 further.






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