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Smallpox has been a curse for mankind since the 14th century: the first time this disease appeared was about 1350 B.C., during a war between the Hittites and the Egyptians, and caused progressive decadence to those early populations. In the world history, a lot of famous characters, such as King Louis XIV of France and Czar Peter II of Russia, contracted the smallpox but survived; the virus, however, often decimated whole populations. For example, three million American natives were killed during the Wars of Conquest in the 16th century, because of the infections carried by the colonizers.

Generally people did not survive the disease, and among the survivors only a few came out without a scratch: in fact, one third lost the sight, while the majority had to adjust with the horrible scars left by the virus.

Jenner was born in Berkeleyon 7th May 1749 to Rev. Stephen Jenner. Jenner had been living in Gloucestershire for lots of years, and their vast properties guaranteed good economical conditions. Edward’s father, who died in 1755, established that Edward would study at the Cirencester Grammar Schoolfirst and then under the guide of two famous surgeons, Daniel Ludlow and John Hunter. After his studies, Sir Joseph Banks asked him to organize and prepare the precious specimens brought by Captain Cooks from his first expedition; he was also offered to join the second one, but he refused, because he intended to be a country doctor. He founded a little medical society there, for which he wrote several articles on vascular inflammations; he was also interested in disputed biological matters, like the behaviour of cuckoos’ chicks, and keen on montgolfiers.

The great theme that interested him until his death 26th January 1823, was, however, smallpox. When he was still a student and an apprentice in Sodbury, he had often seen some milkmaids on his family estate; they often contracted a softer form of the smallpox, the cowpox. After recovering from this disease the milkmaids, who did not suffer too badly, did not contract the smallpox. The fact, however, did not seem to interest scientists, who often pointed out only the analogies between the two diseases. Jenner, who had become curious, did a lot of research and confirmed the differences, making sketches and descriptions of symptoms of cowpox in a milkmaid.

Once he had understood the therapeutic potential of the content of the blister, Jenner went on with his experimentation; on 14th May 1796 the scientist inoculated a boy, James Phipps, with the cowpox extracted from the blister of a milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes. The boy showed immediately the symptoms of the disease, but he recovered quickly; later Jenner inoculated him with the smallpox virus, and he did not contract any disease. The doctor from Berkeleydeducted that the cowpox virus (called vaccine), innocuous, protected humans from smallpox, much more dangerous.

 

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