The farmer who first inoculated cowpox (1774)

Jesty Book
Image © Wellcome Collection / London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

The global history of immunization shows some amazing creativity in terms of documentation. Keeping aside the science and art of discovery to delivery of vaccines, there were numerous people, outside scientific fields, enriched the history with their creativity. Apart from the scientific papers, the history of immunization had been documented by paintings, literature, folk arts, photographs, poetry, and many other forms. For example, Athenian historian and General Thucydides, who scientifically documented the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) and thus the scientific world came to know about the Plague of Athens (430 BC), including the symptoms of the victims during the epidemic. Or for example, the metaphorical connection between the famous rhyme “Ring a Ring o’ Rosie” with the Great Plague of England (1665) as described by noted English folklorists Lona and Peter Opie.

During my current photo research on the global history of immunization, I am encountering such kind of images that are leading to explore some fascinating stories behind immunization. One such image is the above one, a sketch of a tombstone, that I found in the archive of Wellcome Images which they got from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. But that was not my point of interest. I found beside the sketch of tombstone, there is written “An early vaccinator”. After reading the inscription and digging deeper, I found a story worth narrating. Let me allow you to tell the story.

For many centuries, smallpox devastated mankind. Smallpox was well known since ancient times and believed to have originated in India or Egypt, over 3,000 years ago. Historians and physicians have sometimes referred smallpox as ‘Indian Plague’, which suggests that the disease might be widely prevalent in India in the earlier times. In 1776, it is said that a British commander may have deliberately intended to spread smallpox by sending recently variolated civilians into Continental Army encampments in Quebec and thus smallpox became a weapon of war. In “The Life and Death of Smallpox”, John Adams quoted, “The smallpox is ten times more terrible than the British, Canadians and Indians together. This was the cause of our precipitate retreat from Quebec.”

The terms vaccine and vaccination are derived from Variolae vaccinae (smallpox of the cow). And the term devised by none other than the English physician Dr. Edward Jenner to denote cowpox. Dr. Jenner, named in the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons, is credited for the development of the Smallpox vaccine. And because of his groundbreaking research, the devastating epidemics of smallpox came to an end in 1979. But the inscription in the sketch of the tombstone and the newspaper cutting tells a different story.

The caption of the sketch of the tombstone says, “Twenty years before Jenner: the tomb of Jesty – an early reputed vaccinator – in Worth Matravers Churchyard”. And the newspaper cutting says, “In view of the smallpox epidemic, the little churchyard of Worth Matravers, near Wareham, is just now an interesting spot owing to the fact that there lie the remain of Benjamin Jesty, who, according to the inscription of his tombstone, was the first person known to experiment with cowpox inoculation. It is also interesting to note that there is living at Worth Matravers a man whose mother was vaccinated by Jesty. The inscription on Benjamin Jesty’s tombstone, which is distinctly decipherable, reads as follow: – “Sacred to the memory of Benjamin Jesty (of Downshay), who departed this life, April 16, 1816, aged 79 years. He was born at Yetminster, in this country, and was an upright honest man, particularly noted for having been the first Person (known) that introduced the cowpox by inoculation, and who from his great strength of mind made the experiment from the (cow) on his wife and two sons in the year 1774. The tombstone on the right of Jesty’s is that of his wife. The inscription, however, is scarcely decipherable, having become somewhat weather-beaten.”

Jesty's grave
The photograph of Benjamin and Elizabeth Jesty’s tombstones at Worth Matravers Churchyard. Image © Wellcome Collection

In the spring of 1774, just after two years when Dr. Jenner returned to Barkley as a trained doctor from St. George’s Hospital, Benjamin Jesty – an English farmer and cattle breeder, inoculated his wife and two sons with matter from a cowpox lesion on one of his cows. Jesty was born 1736 in the village of Yetminster, in North Dorset, England. He became a dairy farmer and was a member of the Yetminster Vestry. He would have known the local doctors and apothecaries personally and probably understood the potential hazards of variolation. Jesty was evidently aware of local folklore that an attack of cowpox protected against smallpox and was struck by the fact that two of his dairymaids, Anne Notley and Mary Reade, had previously contracted cowpox and had later nursed close relatives with smallpox without themselves becoming infected. Jesty had experienced cowpox first-hand as an occupational disease in his youth. And having already contracted cowpox, he believed himself protected from smallpox infection. But Jesty’s wife, Elizabeth and two sons, Robert (3) and Benjamin (2) had not had smallpox and were at risk. In 1774, during a local outbreak of smallpox, from his “great strength of mind,” Jesty devised the idea of inoculating his family with cowpox as a safer alternative to the conventional variolation method. It should be noted that variolation was imported to Britain in 1721 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu after having observed it in Constantinople. To achieve this he took his family from Upbury Farmhouse in Yetminster to the neighboring hamlet of Chetnole, where he knew there were cows with symptoms of cowpox grazing in fields associated with a farmer named William Elford. Jesty transferred material from lesions on their teats to the skin of the arms of his three subjects by insertion with a stocking needle. Jesty’s endeavor came to light when Elizabeth’s arm became inflamed at the site of vaccination. Local doctors were called and Jesty was obliged to tell them what he had done. His wife and children eventually survived. But the local community was outraged that he had deliberately introduced animal material into his wife and sons. Far from being praised for his pioneering experiment, Jesty was physically and verbally abused and the family had to move away, to Worth Matravers. Jesty again followed up his sons’ vaccinations by challenging them with smallpox, pre-empting Jenner’s validation experiment several years later. In 1789, both boys were variolated by the local doctor; they were not affected in any way, suggesting that were protected against smallpox.

Benjamin Jesty, perhaps because of his hostile reception, had no interest in systematically testing his methods or publishing his results, and so his finding was largely forgotten. As Francis Galton once told, “In science, credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not the man to whom the idea first occurs.”

And science also has a long history of rivalry, greed, and jealousy.

In June 1802 Dr. Jenner was rewarded from the House of Commons for discovering and promoting vaccination and then in 1807. Before this first amount had been awarded, Dr. George Pearson, a celebrated English physician and founder of the (rival) Original Vaccine Pock Institution, had brought evidence before the House of Commons of Jesty’s work. Dr. Pearosn was known to be jealous of Jenner’s discovery and set out to deprive him of credit for his discovery. Unfortunately, Jesty’s well-documented case was weakened by his failure to petition in person. On August 1, 1803, Reverend Dr. Andrew Bell, rector of Swanage prepared a paper proposing Jesty as the first vaccinator and sent copies to the Original Vaccine Pock Institute and the member of parliament, George Rose. Bell wrote to the Institution again in 1804, having learned of Pearson’s involvement. In 1805, at Pearson’s instigation and the institution’s invitation, Jesty gave his evidence before medical officers of the institution. Robert, Jesty’s oldest son (by then 28 years old) also made the trip to London and agreed to be inoculated with smallpox again to prove that he still had immunity. After Jesty had been cross-examined, he was presented with a long testimonial, 15 guineas for his expenses, a pair of gold-mounted lancets and commissioned the famous portrait artist Michael Sharp to paint his portrait in oils. The verbal evidence of their examination was published in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal. On Sunday 15 July 1806, Bell preached the same sermon twice in honor of Jesty, “whose discovery of the efficacy of the cowpox against smallpox is so often forgotten by those who have heard of Dr. Jenner“.

Immediately after his interrogation, Jesty was taken round to the studio of the portrait painter Michael William Sharp in nearby Great Marlborough Street. Jesty proved an impatient sitter, and so Mrs. Sharp played the piano to try to soothe him as Sharp painted. After a varied history, the portrait is now owned by the Wellcome Trust.

Benjamin Jesty
Portrait of Benjamin Jesty by Michael William Sharp (oil painting). Image © Wellcome Collection.

Sources: Wellcome Images | Malta Medical Journal |History of Vaccine| Benjamin Jesty Website | Indian Journal of Medical Research | Wikipedia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.