If there is one person of whom it can be said that they saved more lives than anyone else in history, then surely it would have to be the truly amazing Edward Jenner.
In 1796, Jenner, a doctor in the village of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, vaccinated a local child, James Phipps, with cowpox. It made him immune to smallpox. Jenner was not only a pioneer of vaccination he also invented its name. “Vacca” is the Latin word for cow. Louis Pasteur later made it the generic term for all immunisations.
In those days, smallpox was responsible for the deaths of over 10% of the entire population. In words that have resonance with today’s hopes for a successful Covid-19 vaccine, Jenner predicted that smallpox could be eradicated as a disease. He was proved right.
Jenner’s innovation was soon taken up in other countries, including Germany and France. He was festooned with international medals, and when a statue to his memory was eventually planned it was partly financed by international subscriptions.
And there’s the rub. The statue, carved in bronze by William Calder Marshall, has become, well, a little lost. It stands, or rather, sits, admittedly in a rather magnificent position, on the edge of the Italian Gardens in Kensington Gardens, where it is seen by comparatively few people.
It was never meant to be there. It started life as a bust, one of the cultural exhibits in the phenomenally successful Great Exhibition of 1851. In 1853, a public fund was inaugurated, with many subscriptions from abroad, to establish a permanent memorial in Trafalgar Square. But as soon as it was installed there, it became controversial.
The statue had the backing of Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, but was opposed by a formidable lobby of anti-vaccinationists, parliamentarians, the Times newspaper and, above all, by military grandees, who apparently not only objected to the fact that Jenner was not military, but also that he was sitting down rather than standing up like the square’s military heroes.
This is a bit ironic, because Trafalgar Square was never intended to be a military shrine. The middle of it was designed by its architect Charles Barry to house the Royal Academy, to complement the National Gallery, until a parliamentary committee overruled him when it was trying to find a location for Nelson.
The military eventually got their way, and, barely two months after the death of its protector Prince Albert died in December, 1861, Jenner’s statue was moved. In the following year the British Medical Journal noted of Jenner that the military statues stayed in the square because “they killed their fellow creatures, whereas he only saved them”.
Today, changed attitudes to Britain’s colonial role in India make the Trafalgar Square statues of Charles James Napier and Henry Havelock – both national heroes their day – problematic. Who knows, Edward Jenner may yet find his way back there.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
OnLondon.co.uk exists to provide fair and thorough coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources. Click here to donate directly or contact email@example.com for bank account details. Thanks.