The introduction of vaccination at the end of the eighteenth century was one of the great medical and scientific advances of all time which saved the lives of thousands of people around the globe.
Even though this was the case there were still many people who opposed it, U3A members were told during a study day held at the Edward Jenner museum in Gloucestershire (pictured below).
An English doctor, Edward Jenner was working and living in Gloucestershire at the end of the 18th century. He noted that milkmaids who had caught cow pox did not catch smallpox, which was then a major killer.
He worked out that the cow pox infection had given the girls immunity but he had to test his theory. So he deliberately infected his gardener’s son with cow pox. The child became unwell but recovered quickly.
A while later Dr Jenner infected the same boy with smallpox and the boy stayed healthy. Thus in 1790 vaccination was born.
Dr Jenner went on to vaccinate many of the local population and offered free innoculations at the Temple of Vaccinia in his garden (pictured right) to poor children in the area.
Former medical microbiologist Dr Bob Spencer told U3A members that vaccination had to overcome the body’s natural defence systems and that without that mechanism the effects could be devastating.
He said that the Inca and Aztec civilisations had died out because it was thought that a slave from Africa who had smallpox had been taken to South America where the local population had no immunity to the disease.
Dr Christopher Burns Cox told members about his time in Bangladesh as part of the worldwide programme to eradicate smallpox. He travelled to local villages inoculating villagers who were at risk. As a result of the campaign smallpox was officially declared eradicated in 1980. This remains the only human disease to have been completely wiped out.
Professor Gareth Williams described smallpox as a nasty, painful disease which killed one in three people who caught it. Even those who survived could be hideously scarred and often blinded.
“The scars were so bad that there were many reports of people killing themselves rather than see their image in a mirror,” he said.
“In the old days there was no cure and no treatment, so the only way to deal with it was to prevent it.”
U3A members from all over the country attended the day. They also had the chance to visit the museum, which was Jenner’s home. The museum receives no government funding and relies on visitors and gifts to run. For further information see www.jennermuseum.com.