The man who saved billions

On May 17th 1749, the man called “the father of immunology” was born. Edward Jenner’s work is reckoned by some to have saved more lives than the work of anyone else. He served a 7-year apprenticeship from 14 to 21 with a Gloucester surgeon, before going into medicine himself. He gained a degree from St Andrews University, one of my own almae matres.

Smallpox was the big killer in his day, killing about 10 percent of the population, with the number as high as 20 percent in towns and cities where people were concentrated and infection could spread more easily. People had experimented with variolation, rubbing material from infected people into small cuts, and even with injecting small quantities of smallpox itself, but each of these methods risked spreading the infection or risking the life of the patient.

Jenner’s innovation was to use cowpox, similar to smallpox. Noting that milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox, but did acquire mild sores from the far less virulent cowpox, Jenner used some of the material from these sores to inject into human patients. When later exposed to smallpox, they did not contract it, showing they had acquired immunity to it through cowpox.

Jenner’s procedure spread rapidly. Napoleon had all his troops vaccinated, and although at war with Britain, awarded Jenner a medal and granted the release of two British prisoners at his request. He called Jenner “one of the greatest benefactors of mankind."

The fight against man’s ancient enemy proceeded apace, until in 1979 the World Health Organization was able to declare that smallpox was now extinct, save for a handful of samples kept in laboratories under total security. A recent UK poll saw Jenner included among the 100 greatest Britons of all time.

His methods were extended to other diseases, including the first polio vaccine developed in the 1950s by Jonas Salk. Poliomyelitis is on the edge of extinction, and would have been globally eradicated by 2018 were it not for Islamists telling villagers in Pakistan and Afghanistan that vaccination is a plot by Westerners to poison them. Concerted efforts will kill it soon, though.

Attention has focussed on malaria, a disease that has killed more people than have died in all of the wars in history. This is more difficult because the disease also resides in a non-human host. While long-lasting bed-nets impregnated with insecticide are greatly reducing its incidence, we may have to eradicate the anopheles mosquito to eliminate the plasmodium it carries.

After that will come tuberculosis, another disease that has killed billions through the ages, including George Orwell. Already there are effective vaccines to protect young infants, but after polio and malaria, it will probably be the next to come under concerted attack to prevent it infecting adults. 

I have often used the following dictum to predict the future: “If humanity wants something badly enough, and if they are prepared to commit the necessary resources, they will get it, whatever it is.” Humans will not be overwhelmed and destroyed by their problems; they will solve their problems. Jenner led the way in the conquest of diseases, spending his life in the pursuit of a worthwhile aim. When we do conquer the other diseases, it will be because he pointed the way.