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Cholera, smallpox & immunology

This is a transcript of episode 2 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett and category judge Professor Lord Robert Winston as we continue our journey through the history of science and discovery in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:

Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I’m Emma Barnett and in this series we’ll be exploring the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today. We’ve been asking you for which places you think should be on the list and we’ve already received hundreds of nominations from people across the country. But you can still nominate at HistoricEngland.org.uk/100places

Together we’ll find out just why our panel of expert judges, including Professor Robert Winston, George Clarke and Mary Beard have selected these hundred locations from your nominations to tell the story of England. We’ll be travelling across the country visiting some well-known wonders and some lesser-known places on your doorstep all of which have helped to make this country what it is today. So are you ready? I am. Let’s find out which places you and our judges have chosen as irreplaceable.

Today we continue our journey into our science and discovery category. I am joined by Jane Sidell, Historic England Inspector of Ancient Monuments and a science enthusiast. We will also be hearing from our Science & Discovery category judge, Professor Lord Robert Winston on why he picked these places. Robert is a Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London and today we are hearing about two of the locations that have played a huge part in our understanding of health and disease.

We start in a little Gloucestershire market town called Berkeley. This picturesque spot is home to Dr Jenner’s House and hut where Dr Edward Jenner pioneered vaccination against smallpox and shared his work with the world. Smallpox was a big deal in 18th century Europe. It killed more than 400,000 people each year and was known as the speckled monster in England. So how did a country doctor take on this monster and what did it all have to do with a cow named Blossom?

Owen Gower:
My name is Owen Gower and I’m the Museum Manager here at Dr Jenner’s House, Museum and Garden. A discovery in this house went on to change the course of human history and resulted in the eradication of one of the most feared diseases known to mankind. Today we are in The Chantry. It’s the house where Jenner lived from 1785 until his death in 1823 and it’s now a museum and the real importance of this building is that this is the house that Jenner lived in when he carried out experiments into the use of the disease cowpox to inoculate against the more feared disease smallpox and that was the discovery or at least the pioneering of the practice of vaccination. So if you care to follow me we can head out into the garden and see more of Jenner’s life.

So we are heading up towards - it has various different names - we like to call it The Temple of Vaccinia here - that was the name that Jenner gave it. Others call it Jenner’s Hut or even Ted’s Shed. It’s a remarkable building really. It looks like a little Hobbit House. It’s a thatched hut and I think the idea was that Jenner would sit there and read and relax but after he had pioneered the practice of vaccination he decided he wanted it to be a gift for all people and so he encouraged people to come to The Temple of Vaccinia after church every Sunday and there he would free of charge vaccinate the local population of Berkeley. That was Jenner’s gift to the people of Berkeley and to the world. We believe that probably when he was still an apprentice he came across the country belief that those people who had caught cowpox would never catch smallpox.

Someone came to him - a dairy maid called Sarah Nelmes and she said - “I’ve got a case of cowpox”. Jenner then found a ‘guinea pig’ - we don’t necessarily know how willing he was - he was an eight-year-old boy called James Phipps and we think that Phipps was the son of Jenner’s gardener. And so he inoculated James Phipps with cowpox. What happened next, which perhaps we would think as being very controversial, but was normal medical practice at the time. Jenner then what they called variolated James Phipps and that is deliberately infecting him with smallpox and that was used as a medical treatment. It was a precursor to vaccination and I think much to everyone’s great relief Phipps did not contract smallpox and Jenner got very excited. He wrote everything up and he sent it to his colleagues at the Royal Society and said “this will change the way we protect people against smallpox” and the Royal Society wrote back and said “this is not enough evidence” and so Jenner got very flustered and he went and rushed out and inoculated all manner of people ranging from his sons, his nephews to other locals and he continued to collect anecdotal evidence as well and eventually he had gathered enough cases that he was happy. And he just went and published it anyway. He self-published this work that he called The Inquiry.

Actor reading the words of Dr Edward Jenner:
“May I not with perfect confidence congratulate my country and society at large on their beholding in the mild form of the cowpox an antidote that is capable of extirpating from earth a disease which is every hour devouring its victims, a disease that has ever been considered the fervent scourge of the human race.”

Owen Gower:
Within months it was a sensation. By the time of Jenner’s death in 1823 - so he published The Inquiry first in 1798 - so by 1823 the practice of vaccination had spread around the world and the word vaccination actually comes very neatly from the Latin word ‘vacca’ for ‘cow’ and so there is a direct link here between vaccination and Blossom the cow from whom Sarah Nelmes contracted cowpox. Less than 200 years later smallpox was declared completely eradicated and I think he would be extremely proud and pleased to know that his prediction came true.

Emma Barnett:
A worthy choice indeed. We caught up with our category judge, Professor Robert Winston.

Professor Lord Robert Winston:
What I suppose is interesting is that what really changed, or really established, immunology was the use of vaccination and vaccination of course has led to a whole range of different antibody reactions that we can induce for a very large number of communicable diseases like measles, like mumps, like whooping cough, diphtheria - all of which kill children at regular intervals very frequently in the past. So I think Jenner should be really celebrated. It is worth actually, if they do go to Jenner’s House, looking at the cartoons of people like Gillray who have got the most amazing drawings of the fashionable use of vaccination for cowpox. There is one wonderful drawing of a very large woman with cowpox sitting at the table with other people with a huge cow growing out of her arm and this was public health plus some very, very, important science - the science of immunology.

What’s really interesting to me is that immunology now has changed from Jenner’s time from being relatively vaguely easy to understand to being completely impossible for anybody to understand - certainly it is beyond me. Immunology is one of the most complex areas of modern medicine.

Emma Barnett:
Whilst we are on the topic of disease, our next location had a big impact on our understanding of cholera. Jane Sidell is here with me in the studio. Jane, can you tell us a bit more about this?

Jane Sidell:
This is a fantastic choice. This is simply a pump on Broadwick Street in Soho around which a breakthrough was made in the study of waterborne disease. It is such a simple thing but this was a time, the 1850s, the period when London cemeteries were literally overflowing with bodies. The Burial Act was introduced because the whole centre of London was so unhygienic. Diseases and epidemics were rampant particularly in the highly developed parts of London and so to have someone actually looking in to what was causing these diseases was tremendously important but also very unusual.

Emma Barnett:
So what has the water pump got to do with it? How does it all fit in?

Jane Sidell:
The pump was really central to Dr John Snow’s thoughts about how cholera was being transmitted. People being superstitious and worried and sceptical thought that a miasma was the way the disease was transmitted.

Emma Barnett:
What does miasma mean?

Jane Sidell:
Miasma means a dread vapour - something that you couldn’t see, you couldn’t touch, you couldn’t taste and yet the disease was spread by it.

Emma Barnett:
So there were myths circulating about how this actually worked.

Jane Sidell:
Huge, huge, myths - no science at all. But people were terrified. Thousands and thousands of people died of diseases that couldn’t be seen, couldn’t be traced, weren’t understood and that’s why this very simple piece of experimentation was so important.

Emma Barnett:
And he thought it could be water-borne. We should also say at this point that John Snow is not Game of Thrones or the news anchor.

Jane Sidell:
He’s not but in many ways he is a bigger hero - he saved more lives than either of those two are ever likely to do.

Emma Barnett:
Well one is fictitious to be fair! In 1854 then, when an outbreak happened near Dr John Snow’s home he mapped around 500 deaths to identify the nearest water source which was this pump.

Jane Sidell:
This particular pump and so what he wanted to do was test his hypothesis like any good scientist would do. He had a hypothesis. Was it right? How did he test it? Shut the pump off. Now anyone that’s ever carried water for a long distance can imagine how much opposition he faced.

Emma Barnett:
In the sense of what this discovery meant - did he get the credit? What do we know about that?

Jane Sidell:
He certainly got the credit because he shut the pump off and people stopped dying around it. It was as simple as that. It was a brilliant piece of experimentation. So he got the credit. There’s a plaque on the site but, more particularly, there is a pub named after him.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, I know that pub very well – it’s one of my favourite watering holes and I didn’t know much about the history so thank you for informing me and all of us who are listening to this podcast. That’s it for this episode. We’ll have another irreplaceable location to explore next time. Thank you very much to Jane Sidell for joining me, and to Professor Robert Winston. And just to remind you, you can still vote for the places you find irreplaceable to be featured in a future episode of our history of England.

You can also join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #100Places. We do love to hear from you so do make sure you rate, review and subscribe crucially to this podcast then you will never miss an episode. Thank you so much for joining me, Emma Barnett. I’ll see you next time for another episode of Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.

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