Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Conquering the Speckled Monster

Guest post by Shirley Raye Redmond

In between the dances, routs and other social activities, such as taking the waters in Bath’s famous Pump Room, my heroine Prudency Pentyre and the other major and minor characters in my Regency novel, PRUDENCE PURSUED, are involved in a heated worldview debate regarding small pox—the deadliest disease of the age.

Like their real-life contemporaries in England during this time period, some felt the “speckled monster” was a scourge from an angry God and that it was His will so many people should die. Others, like Prudence, felt that the disease was to be fought and if possible vanquished all together.

Small pox killed hundreds of millions of people—more than the Black Death and the wars of the 20th contagious disease to plague mankind. Mortality rates were at a nightmarish proportion. One in three victims died; most of them children under the age of ten. Those that did not die from the disease were often left blind, disfigured, or both. Jane Austen’s dearest friend Martha Lloyd was scarred by smallpox for the remainder of her life. Several members of the Lloyd household died from the disease.

Edward Jenner, a British physician and contemporary of such Regency notables as William Wilberforce and Jane Austen, was the man who eventually conquered the disease by using a cowpox vaccine. Jenner was a Christian. His wife even taught Sunday School classes in their home. He spent an exorbitant amount of his own money to vaccinate his fellow British citizens in an attempt to eradicate the disease.

It was already a common practice to inoculate patients with a small amount of the small pox virus in hopes of inducing a mild case of the disease, thereby preventing a more serious case later on. The procedure involved making two or three slanting incisions in a patient’s arm using a lancet wet with smallpox pus. However, the procedure was not always reliable or sterile. Those performing inoculations were often not mindful of cleanliness. Many were not even physicians, but tradesmen eager to profit from performing the procedure. Smallpox inoculation did not guarantee protection from more virulent infection later on, and it often triggered serious outbreaks in the patient’s home and community.

A safer method of preventing smallpox was desperately needed, and Jenner believed he had found one. Jenner first came up with the idea while serving his medical apprenticeship in the Cotswold dairy country. As he went from one farm to another, he was intrigued by the dairymaids’ flawless complexions. Unlike most people at that time, these women did not bear the usual pits and scars left by small pox. Nor were they worried about contracting the dreaded disease. They explained that once they’d contracted cowpox blisters on their hands from milking infected cows they could not catch small pox. Dairy farmers and farriers who often treated ailing cows and horses also proved resistant. Cowpox was a nonlethal disease common among dairy cattle and easily transmitted to farmers and dairymaids. Jenner seized this opportunity to prove a theory he had been considering for many years: that exposure to benign cowpox could prevent infection from deadly smallpox. He was proved right.

Today, a statue of Edward Jenner, the Father of Immunology, can be found tucked away in a quiet corner of Kensington Gardens. President Thomas Jefferson, who used the Jennerian method to vaccinate his own family, friends, and slaves, once wrote to Jenner: “Yours is the comfortable reflection that mankind can never forget that you have lived.”

As an aging widower looking back on his amazing contribution, Jenner said, “I do not wonder that men are grateful to me, but I am surprised that they do not feel gratitude to God for thus making me a medium of good.”

Shirley Raye Redmond is an award-winning author of women’s fiction and children’s books. Her Lewis & Clark: A Prairie Dog for the President (Random House) was a Children’s Book of the Month Club selection. Visit her at www.shirleyrayeredmond.com


  1. What an interesting post! Thank you so much for sharing this and thank you, Mr, Jenner!

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

  2. I remember getting the small pox vaccination. It was the painless one, just a few pricks on the upper arm. Thank you for reminding us of Jenner's contribution.

  3. Intriguing post, Shirley. Thank you for sharing this Tidbit Tuesday with us! I always love hearing about Christian's contributions to the medical and political fields. Your book cover is beautiful.

  4. Wonderful post, and interesting. I didn't know that about the dairy maids. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Fine piece of research and a lovely tribute to Jenner. Interestingly he was already experimenting before the Regency era (1811-1820) - The real breakthrough in fighting the virus came in 1796, when Edward Jenner carried out his famous experiment. He inserted pus extracted from a cowpox pustule on the hand of a milkmaid, into an incision on the arm of an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps. Jenner was testing his theory, drawn from the folklore of the countryside, that milkmaids who suffered the mild disease of cowpox never contracted smallpox. Jenner proved conclusively that contracting cowpox provided immunity against smallpox as well. He was quick to realise the enormous potential of vaccination. In 1801 he wrote 'It now becomes too manifest to admit of
    controversy, that the annihilation of the Small Pox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be the final result of this practice.' But prior to Jenner there was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1717. Facts:Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) is credited with introducing variolation to Britain in 1721. Severely pockmarked herself after surviving the illness, she learnt about variolation in Constantinople, where her husband was the British Ambassador. She had her children inoculated and persuaded the Princess of Wales to do the same.