The Jenneration of Disease: Vaccination, Romanticism, and Revolution

By Fulford, Tim; Lee, Debbie | Studies in Romanticism, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Jenneration of Disease: Vaccination, Romanticism, and Revolution


Fulford, Tim, Lee, Debbie, Studies in Romanticism


IN 1798, BRITAIN WAS PREPARING FOR INVASION BY FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY armies. To the government and the press it seemed ill-prepared to defend itself. The navy had recently mutinied at Spithead and the Nore, and pro-French radicals were fomenting discontent amongst the laboring classes. Worse still, France was threatening Britain's colonies in the East and West Indies. Faced with the exigencies of national politics and imperial war, the established powers in London found little opportunity to pay attention to what turned out to be the most significant event of that year--the quiet appearance in print of a medical treatise entitled An Inquiry into The Causes and Effects of The Variolae Vaccinae, A Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England ... and known by the name of The Cow Pox.(1) This revolutionary work by Edward Jenner, a little-known provincial doctor, outlined the first ever theory of vaccination, making the eventual global eradication of smallpox possible.(2)

Jenner's Inquiry was beautiful in its simplicity. It was not rooted in visions of national and international conquest of disease, but in the bodies of those who worked in the English countryside. It was not about global politics but about rural health. It was not derived from scientific authorities but from the oral tradition of Gloucestershire villagers. Just over seventy pages in length, it presented a series of stories about dairy maids, farm hands, paupers, and man servants whose daily, pastoral, activities brought them in touch with cows and cowpox, and thus made them immune to smallpox. The most important case was that of dairymaid Sarah Nelmes. "Infected with the cow-pox from her master's cows," Nelmes's pustulised hand provided the infected matter for Jenner's most crucial experiment. He inserted Nelmes's cowpox into the arm of a "healthy boy, about eight years old" (An Inquiry 153). The boy, he discovered, barely took sick and was thereafter immune to smallpox.

Jenner presented Nelmes's hand to the public in the form of an elegant engraving (Fig. 1).(3) But his beautifully illustrated story of pastoral healing made little initial impression. The rural simplicity of the story of the dairymaid with a sore hand, like the rustic speech of that other volume of 1798, Lyrical Ballads, was too quiet, too bucolic, to find immediate understanding in a metropolis that was alarmed by the threat of invasion and revolution. After three months waiting in London to receive patients, Jenner retired to Gloucestershire. Not a single person had volunteered for vaccination. Jenner, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, needed to promote his work by explaining its innovatory significance--both to men of influence and to the reading public at large. The poets sent their volume to major politicians and added the polemical Preface; Jenner, likewise, launched a propaganda campaign designed to convince the socially powerful that Britain would benefit from the healing power of nature that he, a doctor who had "sought the lowly and sequestered paths of life,"(4) had harnessed. This essay tells the story of that campaign. It was a campaign that, from the start, presented science through the medium of poetry. Jenner attracted the services of romantic poets, who lent their verse to his efforts to create the taste by which his discovery might be enjoyed by the people. They helped him make his pastoral medicine seem socially and politically conservative as they sought public approval in a Britain dominated by war with revolutionary France.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Pastoralism and the Body

The taste for Jenner's medicine was affected by the fact that vaccination threatened to break some of the most powerful social and cultural taboos of its time. Jenner's discovery turned the pastoral ideal, long elaborated in polite poetry (including verse by Jenner himself)(5) into a strange reality. It made the life and lore of cowherds and dairymaids, typically portrayed as being of bucolic innocence and ignorance, into the saviors of the lives of their social superiors.

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