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Episode 6

How the Milkmaid Cured Smallpox

One of the greatest diseases known to humans was no match for a Cow named Blossom…? In this episode, we discuss the origins of the first vaccine and the anti-vax movement that (unfortunately) followed. You'll learn all about our star physician, Edward Jenner, and his unconventional methods. 

    Smallpox is one of the most prevalent and well-documented diseases in all of world history. Some of the earliest case studies arise from 3rd Century Ancient Egypt where the mummified remains of Ramses V show evidence of infection (pictured below). Smallpox presents clinically with fever, vomiting, and, eventually, the characteristic and unmistakable fluid-filled bumps across the skin. Though I will warn that the images of the disease are not for the faint of heart, I encourage you to look them up. It is difficult to underestimate the importance of Dr. Edward Jenner's work given the approximately 300 million people that died from the disease in the 19th century alone. 

     Edward Jenner was born May 17, 1749 in Berkeley, England, but orphaned at age 5 and sent to live with his elder brother. At just 13 years old, he began his career in medicine, working with the county surgeon. He continued training with famous English practitioners, namely George Harwicke and John Hunter, until his apprenticeship in medicine was completed at the age of 21. Though Dr. Jenner is most famous for his scientific investigation of the first vaccine, he also had important contributions to the fields of Biology and Zoology. At one point, he declined an offer from Captain James Cook to travel and even convinced Charles Darwin to make a few edits in The Origin of Species. 


Meet Edward


Portrait of Dr. Edward Jenner (1749 - 1823)


     Even after the success of the James Phipps experiment in 1796, many remained critical of Dr. Jenner. Despite this, he pursued it heavily, sacrificing his own private practice and straining his personal relationships in order to distribute vaccines and spread the word. Eventually, popularity grew in England, a country that lost nearly 10% of its population annually to smallpox, and the British Parliament eventually provided Jenner with a grant totaling £30,000. Variolation was outlawed in England in 1840 and replaced with the now widely accepted vaccination. Ultimately, the campaigns exceeded England, spreading across Europe and later to America, where the National Vaccine Institute was developed with the help of Harvard scientist Benjamin Waterhouse and Thomas Jefferson. In his later years, Dr. Jenner moved back to his hometown in Berkley, settling in the Chantry House, which today can be visited as the Edward Jenner Museum. There, he built “Temple of Vaccinia”, a free clinic in his garden that provided vaccines for the poor. 

Photograph of Pharaoh Ramses V with preserved evidence of smallpox appearing just beneath the cheekbone. 


The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! (James Gilray, 1802) is a political cartoon depicting patients fear of the smallpox vaccine. This caricature is testament to the criticism Dr. Jenner received and skepticism from greater public. 

Further Reading


A portrait depicting Edward Jenner inoculating 8-year-old James Phipps with cow pox from Sarah Nelms, a local milk maid, in 1796.


Hosts: Wafik and Jessica Sedhom

Guest appearances: Kerry Nelson as Milkmaid

Written and Produced by: Wafik and Jessica Sedhom

Edited by: Wafik Sedhom

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