Vic Keegan’s Lost London 173: The sidelined statue of Edward Jenner, vaccination pioneer

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 173: The sidelined statue of Edward Jenner, vaccination pioneer

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.

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

2 Comments

  1. Ruth says:

    Clever Dr Jenner inventing the vaccine in 1796. Actually he invented the term but was reinventing the wheel when it came to the vaccine itself

    Long before he was born, in 1718 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had her son protected against smallpox by having him ‘variolated’ in Turkey. Old Turkish women were in effect vaccinating people, using smallpox matter in a walnut shell ‘ingrafted’ with a needle. Later in England she did the same to her daughter. Why are they never mentioned in histories of the vaccine? Because they were women and Turkish?

    Even when Lady Montagu and these Turkish women are acknowledged, Jenner is still said to be the inventor of vaccination – even though smallpox vaccination was taking place in England long before he invented it.

    This abstract for a BMJ article by S Kula does exactly that:

    It is known that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu occupies an important place in the medical history for her efforts in smallpox vaccination. While in Turkey with her British ambassador husband, she vaccinated her 5 year old son. After returning to her own country she performed the same thing on her daughter (in 1721) and subsequently caused the widespread increase of vaccination in England.

    She contributed just one identified text to the war against smallpox, writing not under her own name, but as “a Turkey merchant”—a pseudonym that misrepresents her class as well as her gender, but makes no claim to medical qualification. No wonder: her essay, published in the Flying Post at the height of the controversy, is an outright attack on the medical profession.

    The procedure was quite safe in the hands of Turkish women. According to her notes, the old woman in Turkey made a tiny scratch with a needle and inserted a tiny quantity of smallpox virus just under the skin.

    Interestingly, the Royal Society heard a paper on Turkish inoculaton in 1714. As a result, although Jenner was shown to be the inventor of the vaccine, the efforts of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, deserving more appreciation than Jenner, should not be forgotten.

  2. Liam Hennessy says:

    Dear OnLondon / Victor Keegan
    Appreciate the article, but wonder if it would be a good idea or appropriate to move Edward Jenner’s statue back to Trafalgar Square.
    Yes, he was and is by far more important than any military figure, and easily one of the most important humans in all human history.
    To me he seems fairly comfortable sitting in a beautiful garden, closer to Nature, as he was in his lifetime,
    rather than having any kind of equivalence with questionable military figures.
    If the military figures were moved out of Trafalgar Square first, things might be different….
    I don’t go to Trafalgar Square to ‘pay my respects’ to any statue, but as a regular visitor to Kensington Gardens I often give a nod to
    Edward Jenner, sometimes sit near him, and if the opportunity presents it, I tell newcomers who he is and why he is so important.

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