Dr Jenner’s House in Berkeley traces the life and work of the medical pioneer and is less than 15 miles from Stroud. Jenner is regarded as ‘the father of immunology’ and his work is said to have saved more lives than the work of any other human.
Edward Jenner was born in Berkeley in 1749 and spent much of his childhood exploring the countryside around the town. At 14 he was apprenticed to an apothecary surgeon in Chipping Sodbury and later went to London to continue his training under John Hunter.
Hunter instilled in Jenner the importance of careful scientific experimentation, and when Jenner returned to Berkeley to set up practice as the town’s surgeon he continued to correspond with his mentor. Encouraged by Hunter, Jenner carried out experiments to determine the nesting habits of cuckoos, the way in which hedgehogs hibernate, and the efficacy of human blood as a fertiliser, amongst many other things.
He also launched an unmanned balloon from the courtyard of Berkeley Castle, looked for fossils on the banks of the River Severn, and investigated new types of medicine.
In the early 1790s, Jenner’s attentions shifted to the study of the horrific disease smallpox. Although smallpox couldn’t be cured, there was an established technique to prevent it known as inoculation. This involved deliberately infecting people with a mild dose of smallpox, knowing that this mild dose would prevent you from contracting it again naturally. It was effective, but not without problems as it was difficult to establish how each person would react and carried with it the risk of starting outbreaks if inoculated patients didn’t isolate.
Jenner himself carried out inoculation but was also aware of a theory that humans who had contracted an animal disease, cowpox, were also protected against smallpox. Cowpox led to a mild infection in humans and was particularly common amongst agricultural workers who had close contact with infected cattle.
Jenner collected evidence of people who had contracted cowpox and then been exposed to smallpox without infection, but knew he had to test this in a controlled way. On 14 May 1796 he infected an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, with cowpox. A few weeks later he attempted to inoculate him with smallpox, using the established medical technique, but the infection didn’t take.
Jenner repeated this experiment on Phipps multiple times and other people and in 1798 published a paper outlining his findings and explaining how others could carry out what he called vaccine inoculation (after the Latin vacca, meaning cow). Jenner devoted the rest of his life to continuing his research, sharing information on vaccination, and giving out free vaccination to his local community in a summerhouse at the top of his garden which he called the Temple of Vaccinia.
“Dr Jenner’s House is, as the name suggests, the house that Jenner lived in from 1785 until his death in 1823. Today our visitors can follow in Jenner’s footsteps, seeing the Study where he corresponded about vaccination with people around the world and walking up to the Temple of Vaccinia as residents of Berkeley did some two hundred years ago,” said Owen Gower, General Manager at Dr Jenner’s House.
“We also have displays telling Jenner’s story and exploring the global history of vaccination, including the eradication of smallpox and the ongoing efforts of people around the world to save lives through vaccination. In Jenner’s garden you can see a ‘Physic Garden’ with examples of medicinal herbs, and also the grape vine planted here by Jenner. During the summer we have new trails for families, as well as bookable craft activities on Wednesdays.”
What impact has Dr Jenner’s discovery had on society as a whole? “It’s been huge. Through his commitment to vaccination, Jenner established the principle that diseases could be easily and safely prevented rather than just treated, but he also championed the values of free access and global availability,” said Owen.
“Through vaccination, smallpox has now been eradicated with countless lives saved. Inspired by Jenner other vaccines have been created, giving us hope in the face of horrific diseases, like polio, diphtheria, and COVID-19, and saving between two and three million lives each and every year. All this was started by Edward Jenner.”
Dr Jenner’s House, Church Lane, Berkeley, GL13 9BN is open Sundays to Wednesdays from 11am – 4pm, (last admission 3pm) until 28 September.