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Edward Jenner: pamphleteer

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By | The Researcher’s View

Dr Rob Boddice presents the evidence for his discovery of a lost work by Edward Jenner in the Wellcome Library.

Edward Jenner, father of immunology, pioneer of the vaccine against smallpox and all-round good egg, is well known for his tireless campaigning on behalf of the innovation that would save the lives of countless millions. He is usually painted as a man who thought of humanity before self-interest, and of fame only in the least proprietary sense.

Edward Jenner, pastel by John Raphael Smith.

Edward Jenner. Pastel portrait by John Raphael Smith. Wellcome Library reference: 45702i.

Jenner was fiercely defensive of his reputation and honour; he had a keen sense of the enormous humanitarian benefit that directly attached to his name. Only once, however, was Jenner so irritated by the anti-vaccination cant among the quack pamphleteers that he was stirred to pen and publish a reply. It was his single entry into the world of yellow pamphleteering. But it was anonymous. Nobody has ever found the article in question.

John Baron, Jenner’s friend and first biographer, saw it but denied that it had been published, probably to defend Jenner’s posthumous reputation. It has now been possible to piece together the evidence and finally identify Jenner’s work.

Cowpox incoculation patients

Illustrations from Cow-Pox Inoculation No Security Against Small-Pox Infection by D W Rowley. Wellcome Images references: L0033811 and L0033883.

Jenner had been angered by the faintly ridiculous assertions of one Dr William Rowley, a noted variolator, whose own pamphleteering had the potential to damage the vaccination cause. Rowley produced ‘evidence’ of vaccine disasters in the form of portraits of the ‘Ox-Faced Boy’ and the ‘Mange Girl’ in his book Cow-Pox Inoculation No Security Against Small-Pox Infection.

These absurd illustrations were meant to highlight the apparent animalistic taint that vaccination could leave. It was an underhand attempt to make real the fears that James Gillray had mocked in his earlier caricature of the effects of cowpox.


Jenner wanted to round on Rowley and give him a satirical taste of his own medicine. Baron insisted that Jenner was such a temperate, rational soul that he could not sink so low as to actually publish such a piece. A “serious reply to such disgusting observations as characterised their [the anti-vaccinist] productions would indeed have been quite unworthy” of Jenner, Baron thought. However, he knew that Jenner valued ridicule as “a weapon that might be fairly and effectually wielded”.

Jenner’s manuscript was styled, according to Baron, as a “letter to one of the chief anti-vaccinists”, filled with “genuine wit and polished irony”. Jenner clearly thought it worthy of a public airing. A letter survives that clearly indicates the existence of a substantial manuscript, too long for quarto form, which Jenner sent to an unscrupulous agent called Dibdin. Jenner demanded complete secrecy in employing Dibdin to find a publisher.

The evidence that this is indeed by Jenner is substantial.

The pamphlet Letters to Dr Rowley appeared in 1805, in octavo form, published by H D Symonds (a publisher regularly favoured by Jenner’s allies). One of only four copies in the world resides in the Wellcome Library. Jenner chose the pseudonym ‘Aculeus’ for his work to denote the pointed sting of its words.

Front cover of Letters to Dr Rowley by Aucleus, published 1805.

Front cover of Letters to Dr Rowley by Aucleus, published 1805.

The evidence that this is indeed by Jenner is substantial. It is published in the right year and in the right format by the most appropriate publisher. There are no other likely candidates at this time. It is in letter form, as Baron stated. The introduction, closely echoing Baron’s diction, states that Rowley’s work was “totally unworthy a serious reply” and sets out “to ridicule” him.

As per the contents of Jenner’s letter to Dibdin, it goes out of its way explicitly to mention the “Men of consequence who have figured on the Vaccine side”, attaching honour to the names Rowley had threatened to besmirch. It refers, both in the introduction and the appendix, to the work and reputation of Dr Thornton, who was Jenner’s correspondent throughout this time concerning the anti-vaccinationist attacks.

Thornton published his own pamphlet in the following year (Aculeus even notes that it is forthcoming). Thornton’s pamphlet, Vaccinae Vindicia, or, Vindication of the Cow-Pock, contains an extract of correspondence with Jenner that is remarkably close to the exasperation of Aculeus. Jenner and Aculeus alike bemoan the pointlessness of argument with an inoculator hypocrite who thinks it impious to intervene in the course of a disease.


Jenner also quotes Aculeus at length in his exchange with Thornton, with great familiarity and admiration. Here, I suppose Jenner to be trumpeting his own cause with the freedom a soubriquet offers. The introduction and appendix of the Aculeus pamphlet is consistently Jennerian in tone when compared with his correspondence of this time. Jenner wrote to Thornton of Rowley that he “could pardon this kind of logic in an old woman”, and indeed, Aculeus invents an old-woman character, who denounces vaccination to the author while in the act of purchasing a copy of Gillray’s print.

Jenner’s anonymous work was favourably received in the Anti-Jacobin Review and the Philosophical Magazine. It must have gratified him enormously to have finally been able to pour scorn on his critics, to tarnish them with “proof of insupportable vanity and self-conceit”. But Jenner took his satisfaction to the grave, remaining forever publicly opposed to the slinging of mud.

Author: Rob Boddice is a historian of medicine, science and the emotions, based in Berlin. He is the author of Edward Jenner: Pocket Giant. Find him on twitter @virbeatum.


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