Whose Hut is Considered to be the Birthplace of Public Health?

The Temple of Vaccinia, or Jenner's Hut
The Chantry garden
Church Lane, Berkeley, Gloucestershire

Listed: 1952
Grade: II*
NHLE entry: Listing details for Jenner's hut

Immunisation is one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions, annually preventing 2-3 million deaths from a wide variety of diseases across the world. In individuals ranging from infants to senior citizens, immunisation prevents debilitating illness, disability and mortality. It has brought diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps, polio and many other diseases under control and by 1977, resulted in the complete elimination of smallpox.

At the end of the 18th century, however, immunisation against any of these diseases did not exist. Smallpox, for instance, was a global killer, with a mortality rate in many countries of 60% for adults and 80% for children. In Europe, it killed 400,000 people annually (the equivalent of cancer today) and was the cause in a third of all cases of blindness. Survivors were left scarred and physically deformed.

Although 'variolation', a form of inoculation, had been practised for centuries, it required the introduction of smallpox 'material' (often scabs or pus) into the body to trigger immunity. Unfortunately, this had a 2% mortality rate, and those who contracted the mild form of smallpox that resulted from variolation were infectious and could start an epidemic.

The milkmaid, Blossom the cow and the gardener's son

Edward Jenner (1749-1823) worked as a country doctor in Gloucestershire where he was able to observe the link between cowpox, a relatively mild disease, and the deadly smallpox. It was widely known that contracting cowpox would prevent you from getting smallpox, but Jenner was the first to carry out controlled experiments. On 14 May 1796, in a hut in the garden of his home, The Chantry, Jenner scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught the virus from a cow called Blossom. He then used the pus to inoculate James Phipps, his gardener's 8-year-old son, by inserting it into a cut.

The boy developed a fever and had some uneasiness, but no full-blown infection, and a few days later was fully recovered. After a few months, Jenner injected him with some more smallpox 'material', but no disease followed. Phipps was later reinfected with live smallpox but, again, showed no sign of infection.

In all, Jenner tested his method on 23 individuals: all recovered fully and were completely immune to smallpox. After he published his findings, there was an almost instantaneous response as his theory of vaccination was taken up globally, in the Americas, South-East Asia and China. As a pioneer of vaccination, Jenner is acknowledged as having saved more lives than any other human.

From summerhouse to innoculation clinic

Jenner christened the rustic hut in which he developed his theory and carried out trials of his vaccine the 'Temple of Vaccinia', and he continued to use it to provide vaccinations to the poor of the district free of charge. In 1952, it was listed as Grade II*, and in 1985 it was opened to the public as a museum.

Today the hut sits within its original woodland setting, alongside a medicinal herb border and Jenner's Vinery. Built of brick and rubblestone, it has a thatched roof in a semi-domical shape, and rustic tree trunks frame the timber door. As well as being the birthplace of both vaccination and immunology, the hut is considered by many to be the birthplace of public health.

You can visit Dr Jenner's house and hut in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. To find out more, visit the Jenner Museum website. Incidentally, Blossom's hide now hangs on the wall of St George's medical school library in Tooting, south London.

By Stephanie Jenner