Pilgrimage to the Temple of Vaccinia
In recent years, we have posted a blog about survivals of early smallpox scabs in archival collections today (see “A Scab Story”), and in a follow-up blog, “A Scab Story Bites Back,” we described the discovery of several 19thcentury smallpox vaccination kits in our museum collection. These kits showed visible residue on glass slides from lymph taken from pustules on infected human bodies and desiccated scab material. Since the last report, we have begun to correspond with other European and American collections with early vaccination tools that could be assayed for residue. Our own kits were examined first by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and then via the World Health Organization to Canada’s McMaster University. At this writing, the analysis of the kits continues: exciting results will be reported in “Revenge of the Scab Story,” forthcoming.
Meanwhile, we have expanded our inquiry to other collections in North America and Europe that may have relevant vaccination tools that could be tested. Pursuant to this interest, we visited London during September, 2018, to meet our museum counterparts. As emissaries of historic pox, we would live in dishonor if we did not visit the place where vaccination first happened, Dr Jenner’s House, Museum and Garden, in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. Dr. Edward Jenner realized that the minor disease of cowpox, which manifested as lesions on bovine udders that transferred to milkmaids’ hands, could be used as an immunizing agent to prevent a worse, related disease, perhaps the most deadly in human history: smallpox.
As guests of the museum manager, Owen Gower, we sallied forth by train from London’s Paddington Station on a warm, overcast, blustery day, and arrived under two hours later. Gloucester is renowned for bucolic vistas and rural villages that attract holiday makers from around the globe. The nearby, upper reach of the Severn River leads about 25 miles southerly to Bristol, the closest large city, and tourists who pass through Berkeley are likely to commune with the Forest of Dean or the Cotswolds. Berkeley itself has a castle, founded in the 12th century, which is open to the public. Its history encapsulates national history. Shakespeare wrote Midsummer’s Night’s Dream for a wedding there; King Edward II was murdered at the castle, too.
A taxi collected us from the train station and rolled up in front of a grand Queen Anne house with outbuildings and a garden. Although the museum was closed to the public at our visit, Owen warmly welcomed us, gave us a tour of the house museum and grounds, and discussed local tourism, museum programming, and other museum-y subjects. The house itself, which doubles as a museum, includes rooms arranged to resemble its appearance in Jenner’s time, with vitrines and interpretive panels in several rooms that presented Jenner’s vaccination story and the ongoing science and cultural circumstances of vaccination. “Cultural circumstances” include an examination of the anti-vaccination voices which have been heard as long as vaccination has existed.
The presentation of Jenner’s house does not suggest a man who was larger than life, a man who conformed to the public image of the lone scientist, working idiosyncratically to solve a problem through means that have eluded everyone else. Rather, one learns what a full man Jenner was, country doctor, physician, naturalist, experimenter, and enthusiast for promising technologies. For example, in 1784, at nearby Berkeley Castle, he launched a balloon that traveled about ten miles. In the dining room, its red walls opening to a view of the spacious grounds, one sees fossils, evidence of Jenner’s study of natural history. He found a fossil Plesiosaur, for instance, and, arguing against prevailing authority, opined that the skeleton represented an extinct animal of great antiquity. Throughout the museum, visitors find evidence of Jenner’s intellectual peers and correspondents, including botanist and former president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks. Jenner studied animal hibernation, to this end experimenting with hedgehogs, and did not neglect the examination of plants. For example, he applied dried blood to a variety of plants as fertilizer. It was not until Jenner was 50 that he began to vaccinate people.
Born and raised in Berkeley, Jenner acquired his medical credentials through study with one of the best known English physicians of the era, Dr. John Hunter (1728-1793). Once Jenner had recognized how he could exploit cowpox as a vaccine, he spent the rest of his life refining and enlarging his observations and recommendations. Only a few years after he communicated his findings to the medical world, the first vaccination in North America took place in 1800. By the late 20th century, Jenner’s vaccination principles had been applied to new medical discoveries and subsequent vaccinations against other diseases. An admiring President Thomas Jefferson wrote to Jenner, “You have erased from the calendar of human afflictions one of its greatest . . . Mankind can never forget that you have lived.” By 1980, the World Health Organization announced the disappearance of smallpox from the planet, explicitly connecting this achievement—the only eradication of a major world disease—to Jenner’s work. As we navigated the displays, we were overwhelmed with the significance of Jenner’s insight, so we left the museum and walked to a border wall that separated the St. Mary’s Church precinct from the Jenner House. We stopped at and entered the Temple of Vaccinia, as Jenner named it (and taking the obligatory selfies), to commune with the historical moment. At the Temple, Jenner vaccinated local residents without pay. Jenner never made any attempt to monopolize or financially exploit his discovery. Later, we visited his grave in the church next door.
We interviewed not only Owen but also board member Dr. Robert C. Spencer, public health microbiologist and vigorous promoter of Jenner’s legacy. In discussing strategic plans, we offered that our mission is compatible with theirs, and we would like to collaborate in future. Indeed, the mission of The Jenner Trust, the charity that owns the property, is “to bring Dr Jenner’s achievements, their legacy and continuing relevance, to the global recognition they deserve.” The Trust’s board seeks to build a first-class educational resource through its assets, partnerships, and the construction of a Jenner Archive. The story of Jenner and vaccination remain at the core of the Trust’s activities, and the trustees are exploring ways to engage repeat visitors and enlarge visitation overall. Planning must consider access and travel: unlike visiting London, Berkeley must be a desired destination that justifies the travel time from metropolitan areas. Also, the Jenner site itself at present cannot handle large conferences with sophisticated infrastructure requirements. At our visit, the site was experiencing financial straits and set a fundraising target for March, 2019 (which was met), to enable it to remain open, at least for now. Oddly, the regional tourism network has often overlooked the site in its marketing strategies, and the trust has endeavored to remind the community and the region that the museum and gardens are not some separate entity, and authorities must recognize that the Berkeley community itself is an important facet of the Jenner story. We were impressed with the perspicacity evident in the Trust’s plans and in the dedication and competence we found in our hosts.
We also discussed our plans regarding pox testing. While Jenner House commends our research, they have no material or instruments for us to test, but nevertheless encourage more awareness of Jenner’s legacy. Our larger London mission had Jenner written all over it. During the same United Kingdom trip, we visited St. George’s Hospital (home of the hide of Blossom the Cow from which Jenner obtained the first pox material) where we saw the famous bovine and peeked at some of their archival treasures. We also met with, Kristin Hussey, Head Curator at the Royal College of Physicians.
where she gave us a wonderful tour and discussed Jenner’s own tools in their collection. We also gave a presentation at the Dana Research Center at the Science Museum of London on our ongoing smallpox research, with our collaborator at McMaster, Ana Duggan, PhD. We did not omit visiting our old friends at the Old Operating Theater Museum & Herb Garret, and enjoyed a privileged after-hours tour of the Tower of London with our new friend, Ravenmaster Christopher Skaife, although we can’t claim a smallpox link there!
Late in the afternoon, we took the return train to London. Berkeley charmed us, the Jenner museum fascinated us, and its overall presentation reminded us that Jenner was a complete man, not larger than life, whose medical insight was doubtless informed by his many interests in the natural world and the challenge of healing, and who seemed without a vainglorious streak. We felt as if we had been invited guests to his home for an afternoon. Vaccination history aficionados and anyone attached to the medical world should place a travel priority on visiting Jenner’s House. Berkeley has accommodations and restaurants, and many attractions are within a short drive. Direct links exist from both Heathrow and Birmingham Airports. Consider arranging a symposium or conference at the site or nearby. Contact information: