In the late 1790s in Berkeley, England, children lined up on Sundays to get scratched by a doctor. The kids were among the earliest patients ever to be given a small bit of cowpox as a way to protect them against the deadly virus known as smallpox, which killed 80 percent of the kids it infected in London at the time and three out of every 10 people.
Some weeks, the queue on Edward Jenner’s property in southwestern England grew so long that it snaked across the one-acre property’s sprawling lawn, ending at the entrance of a small thatched hut next to the vinery. Originally built as a reading cottage, the structure had been transformed it into what Jenner dubbed the Temple of Vaccinia, the site of one of Britain’s first public health services.
Jenner, a trained local doctor, rose to fame for identifying a novel way to prevent smallpox’s spread. Milkmaids at the time often got cowpox when blisters on the cow’s udders oozed onto their hands. The story goes that when Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who worked for Jenner, reportedly contracted cowpox, Jenner took puss from blisters and scratched it onto the arm of an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps, the son of Jenner’s gardener. After a short and mild illness, Phipps recovered and proved immune to smallpox. Jenner coined the term vaccination, after the Latin root for “from the cow.”
A friend told Jenner that selling his vaccine could make him rich, but wealth wasn’t what Jenner was looking for, says Gareth Williams, author of Angel of Death, a book about smallpox. Instead, Jenner self-published his discoveries in 1798, documenting evidence of vaccination’s success for the first time.
Jenner relentlessly promoted his success despite initial skepticism from some in the medical community, and smallpox vaccinations began across Europe, the Spanish colonies, and the newly formed United States. Napoleon Bonaparte vaccinated his troops in 1805 even though France was at war with Britain at the time. Thomas Jefferson, who vaccinated his family, wrote to Jenner in 1806 that, “Medicine has never before produced any single improvement of such utility... You have erased from the calendar of human afflictions one of its greatest...Mankind can never forget that you have lived.”
At home, he converted his summerhouse into the “Temple” and treated the poor free of charge, hoping to help prevent the extremely contagious virus from spreading. Eventually, Jenner inoculated thousands and became world renown without ever leaving the United Kingdom, preferring instead to conduct his work near home until his death in 1823.
Jenner’s family sold his estate in 1876 to the Church of England, which converted it to housing for local clergy. The Jenner Appeal Trust, a private charity founded by several prominent medical doctors and immunologists, which later became the Jenner Trust, bought the property in 1985 and created a museum where visitors could, until recently, observe the rooms where Jenner worked and developed many of his scientific ideas. Today, however, the historic house is facing the potential of shuttering for good as another deadly virus, COVID-19, spreads throughout the United Kingdom and the world.
“There’s a cold irony in the idea that the birthplace of vaccination, one of the most important sites in the history of medicine, is forced to closed and could be permanently closed by a global pandemic,” says museum manager Owen Gower, himself a historian.
Dr. Jenner’s House, Museum & Garden, as it’s official known, is in a rural and somewhat isolated part of England, near the River Seven. The institution, open seasonally from April to September, attracts a modest audience upwards of 7,000 people a year. When visitors arrive, they can explore Jenner’s Georgian house, a structure constructed in the 1740s, where he studied geology, botany and ornithology on top of his medical research and job as a physician.
The institution’s collections are made up mostly of artifacts from Jenner’s life. His christening gown is on display and his office looks largely the way it did when he lived there, thanks to a detailed inventory of furniture and possessions made after Jenner’s death. The building was also used as a family home after being sold to the Church, and few changes were made to the décor and architecture. Over the last decade, the museum has also collected oral histories and artifacts from people who vaccinated populations against smallpox, a project supported by the CDC Foundation. The accounts help tell the story of how doctors eradicated the disease.
“If that house were in London, brick-for-brick it would be a World Heritage Site,” says Williams, who formerly served as chair of the museum board of trustees. School groups, conference goers, and day-trippers account for 70 percent of the private charity’s revenue, but because of the pandemic, the museum, like so many others, is currently closed.
The house has chronically struggled with underfunding, says Gower. In the U.K., about half of its museums received funding through public grants and are less reliant on visitor traffic, though budget cuts now mean many have to supplement their income with other methods. As a museum funded by private charity, the Jenner House is more sensitive to closures like the one brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last few years, museum officials cut costs and staff. Last year, a fundraiser that garnered £40,000 looked like it would turn the institution’s financial situation around, but Gower says it cannot survive past July without more revenue. (Operating costs, including staff and maintenance amount to a little more than £200 a day, says Gower.)
In order to stay afloat if a whole season passes without guests, the museum will have to raise an additional £50,000. To reach that goal, Gower launched a crowdfunding campaign. He auctioned off tea in Jenner’s dining room followed by private tour for six people when the museum is not open to the public, an experience not usually offered, and promised to honor tickets bought now at a later date. The museum’s fate will remain uncertain as long as the pandemic, and the measures put in place to mitigate its spread, remain.
Jenner understood the devastating impact of viruses like smallpox and knew that it would take a global effort to stamp it out. “He didn’t see science or medicine as something that has international borders or boundaries,” says Gower. The same year Jenner published his pamphlet, he sent vaccine material to a medical missionary in Newfoundland to carry out the first smallpox vaccinations in North America.
Jenner also wrote to the National Institute of France in 1803 stating “the Sciences are never at war…” Two years later, Jenner wrote directly to Napoleon asking for the release of friends who had been imprisoned by French authorities. Napoleon is said to have read his letter and exclaimed ‘Ah, Jenner! I can refuse that man nothing!’ says Gower.
But even after Jenner’s breakthrough in 1796, the smallpox virus would continue to devastate the world for generations. No single effort to eliminate the disease existed, and getting the vaccine to areas where outbreaks occurred proved challenging. In the 20th century alone, the virus killed an estimated 300 million people, says the World Health Organization (WHO). In 1959, the group launched a global eradication program and 40 years ago, on May 8, 1980, it declared smallpox eradicated. So far, it is the only disease we have been able to wipe out in humans, says David Heymann, an infectious disease specialist from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
As chair of advisory group that is giving the WHO independent guidance on the current COVID-19 pandemic to governments and health workers, Heymann says he sees parallels between that effort and the one to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. “[Scientists] don’t give a real holy damn about what's going on geopolitically. We're all working towards a common goal. And that to me is the story in smallpox and in COVID,” he says.
The Jenner House serves as a reminder of why vaccination is so valuable, says Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian, particularly in the context of the search for a COVID-19 vaccine. “It's important to remember the history behind vaccination, and its power in combat sickness during global pandemics,” she says.
While the museum can’t educate visitors in person while closed, Gower says he hopes to remind visitors of the history of vaccines in other ways like in videos, on social media, and through its crowdfunding campaign. So far, the museum has raised more than £16,000. If they survive the effects of the pandemic, the museum could stand as a symbol of the global effort to battle disease.
Humanity, says Gower, has been in the position of fighting a deadly disease before: “The eradication of smallpox shows that humanity can triumph over the most feared of diseases.”