Smallpox (also known by the Latin names Variola or Variola vera) is a virus spread through coughing, sneezing and physical contact with an infected person. It once proved to be one of the biggest killer diseases, killing an estimated 60 million Europeans in the 18th century alone. In desperation, many infected persons turned to herbal treatments similar to those used by Grace Mildmay, a prodominant woman in the line of healing, during the seventeenth century.
Innoculation was the first method of prevention in relation to smallpox. The observation of Chinese doctors led them to believe that speading matter from a smallpox scab onto an open cut in the skin protected people from the full severity of the disease. This was based on the fact thst those who had previously experienced a mild form of smallpox were more likely to survive later epidemics. Potential for both preventing smallpox and making money was quickly exploited and innoculations were caried out in mass numbers during epidemics.
Although there was some success, innoculation was not without risk, as was brought to the attention of Edward Jenner when many refused to receive it. Death was a potential outcome, as was the possibility of treated patients becoming carriers and consequantly spreading the disease to those with whom they came into contact. Local farmers told Jenner that they did not need the innoculation. This was because they believed that after having previously contracted cowpox, a significantly milder disease, you were less likely to catch smallpox.
Jenner enbraced the idea of using cowpox as a much safer method of prevention. In order to prove the given theory, he conducted an experiment in which he took matter from a cowpox sore and inserted it into a boy through two cuts. After slight uneasiness in the following days, the boy was perfectly well. He was then innoculated with smallpox matter, a method which was repeated again several months later, but no disease followed on either occasion. After completing the experiment a total of 23 times, Jenner came to the conclusion that ‘cowpox protects the human constitution from the infection of smallpox’.
Jenner published his findings in An enquiry into the causes and effects of Variola Vaccine, known by the name of cowpox in 1798. As a result, he received £30,000 with which to open a vaccination clinic in London. More than 100 leading doctors proclaimed their support by signing a declaration of confidence in his research.
Despite apparent success, there was much opposition to vaccinations at first. There were many reasons for this. Some people had a dislike for anything new. Others were opposed to the lack of evidence supporting the theories. A number of people thought the vaccine to be dangerous as a result of doctors using infected needles or mixing up vaccines. Also, some doctors were unwilling to accept it as they stood to lose the money they currently received through innoculating people. Success was also hindered by the fact that vaccination was not free, meaning that those supporting it were not necessarily able to receive the vaccination.
Jenner’s theories were founded based on observation and scientific experimentation. The absence of advanced technology meant that Jenner was unable to identify the reasons as to why his vaccination worked. Nonetheless, the knowledge that he recorded was an important step towards proving the link between bacteria and human disease. A combination of improved microscopes and the work of individuals such as Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur meant that Jenner’s work could be elaborated upon and consequently proven to be true. An increased number of vaccinations were discovered, including those of anthrax and rabies which, in turn, aided in the important medical process of discovering cures for disease.
The unearthing of vaccination proved to be highly significant in relation to the progression of medical knowledge and treatment. The existing method of innoculation was undoubtedly successful in reducing the risk of death from smallpox, yet it held many risks. The use of cowpox matter significantly reduced these and was much more successful. In the short-term, Jenner’s vaccination undoubtedly saved many lives. The discoveries which followed, crucially the ‘Germ Theory’, were aided immensely by the background work provided by Jenner and consequently much medical progress has been made. In summary, he was the first immuniser, providing the basis of the science of immunology which has been persued to great effect by others in following years. His observations had a large influence on the declaration of smallpox as an eradicated disease in 1977 by the World Health Organisation.
While it is known now that Jenner was correct in his findings, his inability to provide sufficient evidence to explain the success of his vaccine was a minor hinderance. The main reason for this was a lack of scientific technology. It is inarguable that the progression of such things, like microscopes, aids development of medical understanding. It led to a lack of public support, a crucial factor to the success of such procedures. The fact that the Royal Society refused to publish his research both reflected and supported the public view. This slowed progression until such a time that proof could be offered to add reliability.
There is no doubt that the findings of Jenner were immensely valuable to long-term medical advancement. However, lack of proof meant that in the short-term, despite saving many lives, public support of the vaccine wavered and general acceptance was slow. Nevertheless, no matter which way you look at it, smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been completely eradicated from nature to this day. Therefore, in direct answer to the proposed question, the findings of Edward Jenner have aided the progression of medial knowledge and treatment to a great extent.