Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Poet's Vaccine Part 1


Bronze in Kensington Gardens, London by Iridescent licensed by CC BY SA 3.0 
In Kensington Gardens of London stands a tribute to the physician Edward Jenner. Best known for his invention of the world's first vaccine, Jenner is frequently referred to as the "father of immunology." The plaque that graces the statue tells the story of this "country doctor who benefited mankind:"
In Jenner's time smallpox was a dreaded disease worldwide and caused many deaths particularly in children. Survivors were left badly scarred and often blinded or deformed.  
In 1796 Jenner vaccinated James Phipps with cowpox and showed that the boy was then immune to smallpox. He predicted the worldwide eradication of smallpox. This was finally achieved in 1980.  
Jenner was born, practiced and died in Berkeley, Gloucestershire and studied at St. George's Hospital, London. 
Another tribute to the world-renowned physician stands in Gloucester Cathedral, a monument to Gloucester's most famous hometown boy.
Memorial to Edward Jenner in Gloucester Cathedral by Andrewrabbott licensed by CC BY SA 3.0
The story on the Kensington Gardens plaque is the accepted version of historical events: Milkmaids, exceptionally prone to a much lesser disease called cowpox, rarely contracted the frequently fatal smallpox. In 1796, Jenner diagnosed cowpox in a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes, who had contracted the disease from a Gloucester cow named Blossom. To test his hypothesis that cowpox could prevent smallpox, Jenner drew material from a pustule on Nelmes' hand and used it to inject an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps, the son of his gardener. Lo and behold, the boy became immune to smallpox; upon deliberate later exposure to the disease, he could not catch it.

The word "vaccine" was thus coined from the Latin "vacca" for cow, and the world's first example of deliberate acquired immunity was born. Jenner was inaugurated into what is now the Royal Society of Medicine, his vaccine became standard-of-care in London, and he later became the personal physician of King George IV. And all of this success was the result of his observation of cowpox, his groundbreaking research with a young milkmaid and a boy, and his invention of the world's first vaccine. Or so the legend goes.

The truth, however, is a different story. Edward Jenner was neither the inventor of the world's first vaccine in general nor the discoverer of cowpox specifically. Indeed, he might never have lived long enough to take credit for the find, had he not been personally vaccinated against smallpox as a young child.

The inoculation that vaccinated Edward Jenner against the deadly disease was brought to London by a brave, headstrong, outspoken woman: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She introduced it almost thirty years before Jenner was even born. 
Mary Wortley Montagu by Charles Jervas, after 1716 by Sandcat01, public domain

The use of cowpox to prevent smallpox was also nothing new: it had been performed as early as 1774 by a Dorset farmer named Benjamin Jetsy, who was finally recognized as the true inventor of the technology in 1805. 

And still, the name known to history is Edward Jenner.

Why was credit for the smallpox vaccine bestowed so heartily upon Edward Jenner, who, in reality, had very little to do with it? The quest to answer this question will lead us from Bath to Istanbul, from Jenner to Alexander Pope, and into the war between poets that eradicated smallpox and changed the fate of women worldwide and forever.

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in the third Katrina Stone novel, in progress by Kristen Elise. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel, in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.




Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California. 



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