The Jenner Legacy - Dr Edward Jenner and his Medical Legacy
Of all the names that emerge from the shimmering pages of medical history, none is more notable than that of Edward Jenner, the man responsible for curing one of the most vehement diseases humanity has ever faced – smallpox.
Jenner was born in 1749 in the town Berkeley, Gloucester. He was the eighth of nine children and was educated by his father, the vicar of the town. At the age of 13 he began his medical training, lasting 11 years until, in 1773, he became a general practitioner.
These were seemingly humble backgrounds, however, for an individual whose name would, by the time of his death, reach a global recognition. His efforts to create a vaccination for the deadly disease small pox, discovered through the immunity gifted by its lesser counterpart cowpox, came to fruition by the early 19th century. He spent the remainder of his life perfecting his vaccination and ensuring its distribution across the world.
Small pox took the lives of millions worldwide. It is recognised as one of the most deadly diseases ever to have plagued mankind, and its eradication seemed nothing short as the work of a saviour. For these efforts, Jenner is regarded as the Vaccine Clerk of the World.
He received honorary degrees from numerous universities around the world, and in 1821 became Physician Extraordinary to King George IV. His growing stature and fame ascended his name to all heights of power. He was granted favours from Napoleon of France, and sovereignties around the world sent gifts to commend him for his medical achievement.
Tribute, however, did not stop there. In all places homage to Jenner can be seen. From America to Japan, his medical breakthrough is consolidated in statues, memorials and plagues. Thomas Jefferson, the then ex-president of America, passionately expressed his admiration for Jenner in a letter, in which he wrote “mankind can never forget that you have lived”. Mankind has certainly not forgotten.
Jenner’s legacy surrounds us and our understanding of contemporary medical science. The history of the medical word ‘vaccination’ tells us as much, it derives from the Latin word ‘vacca’, meaning ‘cow’, in honour of Jenner’s discovery.
Yet more striking remnants of Jenner’s lineage exist still. Within medical centres, wards and hospitals the name of Jenner carries with it a certain resonance, potent reminders of the influential figure who carried it. Examples of its usage can be seen at the St George’s Hospital Medical School in London, where Jenner had studied, in which a wing has been named after him. Additionally, at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital and Nottingham City Hospital, there is also an Edward Jenner ward.
Is it too far to say it has even become synonymous with the medical profession? Maybe, but it nevertheless reverberates with a universal awareness of its origins, sprung out from the individual who helped heal mankind in a very significant way. Perhaps it raises an equally significant question – what does the name really mean? For all the hospitals, memorial sites, centres and similar institutions that have adopted the name Jenner, either to tribute to the 19th century physician or to bestow a sense of authority, what remains in relative uncertainty is what significance the name has on those that carry it today.
But ‘what’s in a name!’ you might wonder. Well, everything. It is not only what the name embodies, but to make a literal tie to Edward Jenner’s descendants would mean further understanding one of the fathers to Immunology. Jenner was survived by a son and a daughter, after his eldest son had passed away at the age of 21. Of these only his daughter had children. Yet Jenner also had numerous brothers – so what of them? And their children? It is enough to say that the Jenner name survives as an emblem for the incredible achievement of one individual, but does it survive through any other means?
Whether the true descendants of Edward Jenner can be discovered remains to be seen, yet assumptions can be made. For example, a shared medical proficiency, and a family history that originates from Southern England.
In Berkeley, a small group has dedicated themselves to preserving the home of Edward Jenner, in addition to a museum that catalogues his life and achievements. It proves true that whereas stone, plagues and memorials may fade, and suffer the relentless assault of time, it is at least assured that, owing to the Jenner’s legacy in medicine, the name itself will endure through the ages.
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