Farmer Jesty's Bold Experiment
UNFAZED BY THE VILLAGE DOCTORS' REFUSALS, the parish deacon forged ahead. Dr. Andrew Bell–preacher, educator, and doctor, possessed the temper and energy of a combustion engine. Nothing would stop him from carrying out his plan to vaccinate the three hundred inhabitants of the remote village of Swanage. Having recently returned from a trip to Edinburgh with a supply of vaccines against smallpox, it did not matter to Bell that the other doctors were hesitant to use this new remedy. He was certain it was superior to the prevailing practice of variolation.
Bell should know. Growing up in St. Andrews, Scotland in the mid-1750s with the constant threat of smallpox, young Bell was one of the first patients in the city to undergo the dangerous practice of variolation. For any child, it must have been a terrifying ordeal. The practice involved slitting the forearm with a lancet infused with pulverized scabs or fluid from a boil of a smallpox patient. Done correctly, the recipient escaped with relatively mild symptoms and developed immunity from the torture of fulminant disease and horrific death. Done correctly (yes, still correctly), fever and weakness struck the inoculant, followed by a cloak of florid smallpox sores. Those who survived harbored and unwittingly passed on the virus, further spreading the epidemic.
Andrew Bell had survived his childhood variolation. Years later, he graduated from the oldest college in Scotland, St. Andrews University, became a Deacon in the Church of England, and even earned a medical degree. At age 34, he sailed to India where he held multiple chaplaincies and served as a superintendent of the Military Male Orphan Asylum, a school for orphaned, multi-racial sons of the military.
Bell’s forte was education, and it was in the Indian city, Madras, that he developed a system of instruction that would later be propagated across educational institutions. During this tenure, he witnessed people suffering the savagery of smallpox. The ancient scourge had spread over millennia to almost every continent, killing three out of ten people it touched, sometimes wiping out entire families. Many survivors bore lifelong scars or disfigurement. Too many had been children. he resolved to learn more about this disease.
His years in India were otherwise productive, happy, and successful. After nine years and his health declining, Bell sailed the six-month voyage back to Europe. In 1801, he accepted an offer to be Rector for St. Mary the Virgin in Swanage, Dorsetshire. Bell was pleased with his new appointment and the fresh start in the English setting.
“Never was I so charmed with an English spring,” he wrote to a friend. The cooler climate of Swanage, suffused with sea air, must have done wonders for Bell’s health. Accessible by one street, the coastal village in southeast Dorset was home to three hundred and three families. It lay within the Isle of Purbeck, a misnomer given only three sides were bound by water. To the south and east were the undulating, majestic, chalk-white cliffs that met the crashing waves of the English Channel. The famed Purbeck ‘marble’, ancient limestone quarried there since Roman times, formed the storied twelfth-century Corfe Castle, the church, and most stone dwellings on the isle.
Bell found the people “well-disposed, orderly, intellectual, and full of science,” yet they lived with “primitive simplicity.” They tended gardens and orchards, farmed, fished, quarried, and attended church. He seemed to have settled in well and went about his priestly duties. As a priest and doctor, his mission was to protect the congregation from the devil and smallpox. Prayers and faith may save souls, but he would use a new tool—vaccination—to spare them from smallpox.
Bell was still in India in 1798 when Edward Jenner, a forty-nine-year-old doctor from Berkeley, Gloucestershire, self-published the results of an experiment he had conducted. While variolation inoculated smallpox virus drawn from an infected patient, this “country doctor” had the audacity to propose using cowpox virus instead.
Cowpox disease, the product of cowpox virus, revealed itself through reddish mounds with dark craters on infected cows’ udders. The virus could be passed through touch, as many servants and milkmaids had discovered. Apart from the unsightly and painful eruptions that formed on hands, the disease often produced mild symptoms. More importantly, Jenner realized, as did many other people for many years, those who had been exposed to cowpox never seemed to fall victim to smallpox.
He set out to test his theory on an eight-year-old boy, and later, on over a dozen other people. Jenner’s “An inquiry into the causes and effects of the variolæ vaccinæ...” described the seminal case reports and confirmed what dairy farmers had known for generations.
“The cowpox protects the human constitution from the infection of the smallpox,” he concluded. The word vaccination came from vaccinia, the cowpox virus.
Following his report, vaccination did not immediately catch on. Nonetheless, within a few years, through perseverance and help from influential connections, and despite intense opposition and derision, Jenner spread his message throughout England, Europe, and even the United States. Doctors across the world realized the value of vaccination: it was effective and a far safer option than variolation. Jenner earned worldwide fame and adulation. In 1802, Parliament granted him £10,000 in remuneration.
Bell was a believer. Despite facing some resistance, he vaccinated over six hundred people in Swanage and other parishes.
“Sir Isaac Newton, Dr. Franklin, Monsieur Lavoisier, and Harvey,” he wrote, “could not, in the same short period, boast of equal success in the spread of their respective discoveries.”
“I sent none away,” Bell wrote, boasting he had vaccinated infants to septuagenarians. “I did what was never done before in Swanage,” he wrote a friend, “preached twice, and the same sermon, both forenoon and afternoon, on cow-pock.”
It was probably in early 1803, as Jenner’s fame swelled and more doctors were adopting vaccination, when Bell met a farmer with a curious story. The farmer’s name was Benjamin Jesty, from the Downshay farm in a nearby village. Seeing the growing practice of vaccination, Jesty was eager to tell his story and claimed he deserved rewards just like Jenner. Bell, probably intrigued, recorded Jesty’s account.
Benjamin Jesty was a hefty man in his mid-sixties. He had moved with his wife and seven children to Worth Matravers in 1796, settling in Downshay Manor, on a 476-acre farm just a few miles from Swanage. It had been a rushed relocation from their farm in Yetminster, over forty miles northwest of Worth Matravers. Jesty did not even bother to mend broken fences and gates as required by custom. He was too eager to move to a larger farm, a more spacious manor, and away from the controversy that had hounded him for over twenty years.
In 1774, Jesty lived with his wife, Elizabeth Notley, and their three children: Robert, Benjamin, and Elizabeth, on Upbury farm. Sitting on over 233 acres in Yetminster, it contained all the elements of a coveted farm. He came from generations of dairy farmers. Jesty carried on the family trade as a successful farmer and was respected in the community, holding multiple roles in the parish: overseer of the poor, and member of the Yetminster vestry.
Such close involvement in parish affairs meant he dealt with the community’s medical concerns and collaborated with doctors and apothecaries. On many occasions, the Yetminster vestry had provided financial aid to poor families that had been struck with smallpox.
In 1772, the vestry paid a doctor to perform variolation on those who wished to avail of the service. Smallpox, a perpetual threat, visited villages at random intervals. Two years later, when it again threatened Yetminster, Jesty feared for his family.
Like most people in the farming world, Jesty knew the folklore well. Farm hands, servants, and dairymaids who caught cowpox after working on cattle never developed smallpox infections. The famed flawless milkmaid complexion amid scarred smallpox survivors was proof of the common wisdom.
Jesty believed the lore. He himself was a living testament. On his hand was the scar he acquired in his youth from a cowpox infection. And yet, despite his many exposures to smallpox over the decades, he had never contracted the disease. His own dairymaids, Ann Notley and Mary Reade, were equally convinced. Both had previously caught cowpox, and believing they were protected, they attended to relatives suffering from smallpox. Neither of the women ever got sick.
Jesty, a “plain farmer of ordinary education,” was not a doctor, nor a man of science. He wrote no journal articles to describe his theories, methods, or analyses. But at some point, he conceived the idea that inoculating with cowpox would be a better alternative to variolation. Guided only by heuristic assumptions and the urgent desire to shield his family from smallpox, Jesty set off to a neighboring farm in search of cattle bearing signs of cowpox. He was determined to protect his family.
Cowpox usually appeared in the Spring, and William Elford’s cows had them. Elford farmed in Chetnole, over two miles from Yetminster. Jesty brought his wife and two boys: three-year-old Robert, and two-year-old Benjamin. They left their infant Elizabeth at home with one of the dairymaids.
They must have walked across the verdant pasture, surveying cows’ udders for the telltale lesions of cowpox. After finding a suitable cow, Jesty pulled out a stocking needle, infected the tip with the cow lesion, and transferred the material by puncturing his wife’s arm. He repeated the process on his toddlers.
The boys suffered no side effects. Jesty’s wife, was not as fortunate. Within days, fevers developed and her inflamed arm swelled. Jesty took her to the neighboring village, Cerne Abbas, where two doctors treated her until she recovered completely. After Jesty’s “bold experiment,” as one of the doctors called it, none of them ever got sick of smallpox.
Bell had just heard an incredible story. Twenty-two years before Jenner gave it a name, Jesty had performed what the world would know as vaccination. Two decades was a long time to wait before revealing such an important story. Bell wondered why this discovery had “expired at its birth,” and never become known among scientific circles.
Jesty had his reasons. Elizabeth had suffered an alarming and severe reaction. He may have been reluctant to place others at risk of such complications. There was the story of a doctor who proposed using cowpox material in place of smallpox during variolation. The opposition was so strong that the doctor’s practice suffered by merely suggesting the idea. People also found transferring matter from animal to man abhorrent and sacrilegious. The human body was a temple, never to be tainted with material from a “brute.” Jesty realized just how strongly people believed this teaching. And then there was the matter of being a simple farmer. He had no medical education, no professional credentials, and no access to academic publication.
Despite Bell’s impression that Jesty’s story was obscure, it had, in fact, made the rounds throughout the county and beyond.
“It is well-known in Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, and Devon. I also know it is not uncommon in Leicestershire, and other midland counties,” wrote Richard Pulteney, a doctor who worked in the region.
Jesty became both well-known and thoroughly despised. It appalled neighbors who once respected him as a pillar of the community that he had dared to experiment on his own family. Trips to the Sherborne market that used to be uneventful and friendly, turned into a gauntlet where he “was hooted at, reviled, and pelted.”
In his defense, Jesty justified that a harmless cow, which harbored fewer diseases than a human, was a safer source than an infected patient. He argued that unlike with smallpox, inoculating cowpox was not dangerous. Jesty believed that if humans could eat cow’s meat, drink its milk, and wear its skin, then the “innocuous cow” presented little risk.
For the next two decades, Jesty lived under a cloud of hostility in Yetminster. To his credit, he continued to serve and honored his civic responsibilities to the parish. Over the years, the furor likely simmered down. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to move to Worth Matravers came up, Jesty did not hesitate.
After hearing the farmer’s account, Bell was sympathetic. He was the parish Rector, a seasoned preacher and educator, but he expressed no objections to Jesty’s method as being sacrilegious. Regarding Jesty’s desire, now twenty years after the event, to lay claim to the discovery and receive some monetary reward just as Jenner had, Bell told him it was probably too late. That did not stop him, however, from becoming Jesty’s advocate and ally.
In August 1803, Bell penned a letter addressed to the “Jennerian Society” and the Right Honorable George Rose, a member of parliament. Titled, “Of the Vaccine Inoculation, as performed thirty years ago,” Bell relayed Jesty’s story. He prefaced the letter suggesting that Jesty’s experiment, if Jenner had known of it, could have helped support Jenner’s work. And then advocating for Jesty: “Let Mr. Jesty have that share of credit (whatever it may be) which attaches to this bold and successful experiment.”
Shortly after Bell sent his letter, he read a pamphlet authored and circulated by a doctor named George Pearson. The pamphlet had mentioned Jesty’s story, but with his name incorrectly given as “Mr. Justins.” Bell must have realized that Jesty’s story was not as obscure as he thought: people in London were already aware of it. He wrote another letter to correct the name error and to reaffirm the story’s accuracy. “The facts which I have detailed were communicated to me by the parties themselves, and their accuracy may be depended upon,” he wrote in his second letter.
Following Bell’s correspondence, Jesty received a letter from the Original Vaccine Pock Institute, a group critical of Edward Jenner. They invited Jesty to come to London and tell his story. Jesty, afraid of suffering a gout attack on such a long journey, declined. The following year, in July 1805, the institute still seemed eager to have Jesty come up to London. They sent another invitation, this time with flattering inducements.
“I am desired by the medical establishment of this institution to propose to you, that–provided you will come to town at your own convenience, but as soon as possible, to stay not longer than five days (unless you desire it,) for the purpose of taking your portrait as the earliest inoculator for cowpox,” began the letter written by William Sancho, the Original Vaccine Pock Institute secretary. Sancho promised to give Jesty fifteen guineas to cover his expenses and that they would be “happy to show you any civility during your stay in London.”
Insulated in their remote parish, Bell and Jesty could not have been aware of the controversies and in-fighting that festered in London since Jenner published his experiments in 1798. Claims and arguments were met with counterclaims and rebuttals. Factions, supportive or critical of Jenner, had cast colleague against colleague. As Jenner’s fame grew, so did questions on rightful credit for the discovery. Within the ranks of Jenner critics, one person stood out: Dr. George Pearson, founder of the Original Vaccine Pock Institute.
Pearson was forty-seven in 1798 when Jenner published his work on vaccination. By then, the seasoned lecturer with his low-set spectacles and distinct under-bite had been a Fellow of the prestigious medical Royal Society for almost ten years. He had been a physician for over twenty, having earned his Doctor of Medicine in Edinburgh in 1774–the year of Jesty’s experiment.
As a physician at the St. George’s Hospital in London, Pearson’s career had flourished. More than a dozen scientific articles on chemistry bore his name as principal author. His multiple appointments to the Royal Society Council were a testament to the level of respect he enjoyed. He was a copious storyteller, jocular, and prone to quoting Shakespeare. Those close to him considered him an impartial friend and “a hospitable landlord.”
After Jenner brought vaccination into the spotlight, Pearson immersed himself in the subject. He became friends with Jenner and the two exchanged information on their work on vaccination. Pearson, along with his friend, Dr. William Woodville, became fervent vaccination advocates. Within a brief span, Pearson and Woodville feverishly vaccinated hundreds of patients at the Smallpox Hospital in London.
But early cracks in the rift between Jenner and Pearson formed with a rumor that after Jenner’s first paper came out, Pearson provided Jenner with vaccine material. Pearson’s own words, by his own hand, seemed to refute it.
“Your name will live in the memory of mankind as long as men possess gratitude for services, and respect for benefactors; and if I can but get matter I am much mistaken if I do not make you live forever,” Pearson wrote to Jenner in November 1798. He seemed to be asking Jenner for vaccine matter, not the other way around; if Pearson could have more vaccines, he could promote the practice more, and make Jenner forever famous.
Days later, Pearson released a pamphlet, “An Inquiry Concerning the History of the Cowpox, Principally with a View to Supersede and Extinguish the Smallpox.” It had only been a few months since Jenner published his “Inquiry”. Pearson sounded surprised after his own paper came out.
“Unexpectedly my pamphlet made its public appearance a day or two ago,” Pearson wrote to Jenner. His purpose, Pearson explained, was to provide additional studies following Jenner’s landmark treatise.
“The testimony of a single observer, however experienced, and worthy to be credited… is insufficient for procuring such facts a general acceptance…”
He asserted that improvements in practice would not occur, “unless the subject be investigated by many inquirers…”
A casual observer could read this to say an important discovery required rigorous examination and collaboration among many experts. It takes more than one person to make a landmark discovery. And yet, near the end of his introduction, in a flattering tribute to Jenner, Pearson declared that the honor regarding “discovery of facts” belonged exclusively to Jenner.
“I would not pluck a sprig of laurel from the wreath that decorates his brow,” Pearson wrote. A cynical reader might detect a hint of sarcasm. Or jealousy.
Pearson’s paper, while explicitly deferential and respectful to Jenner, here and there hid subtle swipes, tiny teeth that seemed to gnaw at Jenner’s grand observations. The “first fact” he examined dealt with the theory of cowpox infection protecting against smallpox. Pearson, of course, agreed with this theory. In fact, he provided copious evidence it was common knowledge among dairy farmers and local doctors. Pearson, a city doctor, had not only known about it, but had lectured on it:
“I noted these observations and constantly related them, when on the subject of the Smallpox, in every course of lectures which I have given since that time.”
Pearson included stories implying the idea of using cowpox inoculation to prevent smallpox was not new. He received a letter from Mr. Downe of Bridport, citing a doctor who thought to substitute smallpox with cowpox during variolation. The very notion incensed so many people that his practice suffered. Downe had concluded that the public was not ready for such innovations.
“I think experiments of importance can only be made in hospitals,” Downe reported.
There were other doctors who considered using cowpox. Pearson reported a letter from Mr. Drewe, who wrote that he and a Mr. Bragge “endeavored” to experiment with cowpox, only to abandon the idea when they could not find enough cattle with cowpox or willing patients to inoculate.
And then there was the story about the farmer. Mr. Dolling, a doctor from Blandford, shared the account with Pearson. It involved a Mr. “Justings,” who “inoculated his wife and children with matter taken from the teats of a cow that had the Cowpox…” and that, “The patients did well. They were afterwards inoculated for the smallpox by Mr. Trobridge, without effect.” The name “Justings” was later corrected to Jesty. The two Jesty boys, Robert and Benjamin, did receive smallpox variolation in 1789 while in their teens. They suffered no ill effects, proving cowpox had protected them.
Pearson and Woodville continued vaccinating people at the smallpox hospital. In 1799, a major blunder nearly killed the vaccination effort. Patients at the smallpox hospital were inexplicably getting sick with smallpox after receiving cowpox vaccination. It turned out it was because they were actually getting smallpox injections. Woodville was unwittingly inoculating people with cowpox vaccines contaminated with smallpox material. Fortunately, once they discovered the cause, the doctors averted more disasters.
Woodville and Pearson pressed on. They publicized their work and sent silk threads infused with cowpox to other doctors. Pearson broadened and brightened the spotlight on vaccination and his reputation as an authority on the practice. Jenner had been swamped advancing his own work, promoting vaccination, collecting, and distributing vaccines to every doctor who asked. In March 1799, Jenner received a letter from his cousin who was concerned about Pearson.
“Dr. Pearson is going to send circular letters to the medical gentlemen, to let them know that he will supply them with cowpox matter upon their application to him, by which he will be the chief person known in this business, and consequently deprive you of that merit,” he wrote.
“All of your friends agree that now is your time to establish your fame and fortune; if you delay taking a personal active part any longer, the opportunity will be lost forever.”
The relationship between Jenner and Pearson continued to deteriorate. At the end of 1799, Pearson founded the Original Vaccine Pock Institute. A few years later, in 1802, when Jenner submitted a claim for remuneration to the Committee of the House of Commons, Pearson tried to block its approval. He failed, but Jenner would never forget. The House of Commons awarded Jenner £10,000.
News of the acclaimed Jenner receiving money and recognition surely reached the countryside. When Jesty met Bell in 1803, he expressed the idea of perhaps receiving some credit and monetary reward. After Bell had told him it was unlikely to happen, it must have delighted Jesty that the Original Vaccine Pock Institute later invited him to visit London. With the alluring promise of recognition from a respectable institution, Jesty made plans for the long journey.
“He did not see why he should dress better in London than in the country,” said Robert, Jesty’s eldest son, recalling his father’s preparation for the trip to London. Jesty was to be accompanied by Robert, who was in his thirties at the time. Despite his family’s appeals that he packed something more fashionable, Jesty insisted on wearing his usual, outdated country attire. He also tried to borrow saddlebags from his neighbor to carry his clothes. His neighbor lent him a modern portmanteau, as they considered saddlebags, a “thing of bygone ages.”
In August 1805, father and son set off on horseback, traveling more than a hundred miles over three or four days. At the intersection of cobbled Broad and Poland Streets, Jesty and his son presented themselves at the Original Vaccine Pock Institute. The gracious members of the institute gave them a warm and attentive welcome.
The group of doctors and apothecaries found Jesty, in his “peculiarly old-fashioned” attire, amusing. They were impressed that Jesty at seventy years appeared closer to fifty-five (or at most, sixty), fresh-looking, athletic, and in an uncommonly excellent state of health. His speech was hard to understand, but that was only because he had lost all his teeth.
Edentulous or not, Jesty retold the story that he had told Bell. He told them of how cowpox infection seemed to have protected him and many others from smallpox. Jesty recalled the vicious scorn after he vaccinated his family in 1774. They called him hard-hearted for inoculating his family from a beast- “a brute creature without a soul.” He countered that those “brutes” were free of the terrible disorders of men, such as scrofula, syphilis, madness, and so on. He much preferred to use matter from the harmless cow.
“There were many Christians who were greater brutes than the cows,” he complained.
Following Jesty’s testimony was a demonstration. To confirm his immunity, Robert willingly agreed to a live smallpox inoculation while they were in town. On a designated day, doctors transferred pustule fluid from a child infected with smallpox into Robert’s arm. The next day, red pimples bloomed at the puncture sites, lingered a few days, and then withered away. Robert experienced no other symptoms.
The institute fulfilled its other promise to Jesty. They commissioned a renowned portrait painter, William Sharp, to paint a three-quarter length picture. Jesty proved to be a challenging subject and required soothing piano music during the sitting. Mr. Sharp, no doubt thankful for his wife’s skillful piano playing during the long session, completed the portrait, much to the institution’s satisfaction. In its report, they judged:
“It has been executed in a capitally successful manner; but it must be owned that the manly figure and fine countenance of the subject were in favour of the ingenious artist.”
Father and son returned to Downshay farm, likely exhilarated from the London experience. Jesty did not appear to have pressured the Original Vaccine Pock Institute to request the House of Commons for monetary reward on his behalf, but it must have crossed his mind again a year later, when he wrote to Pearson about it. Pearson shared the letter with his colleagues, but the best they could do was promote his views. They felt it improbable that parliament would ever grant Jesty money.
In July 1807, Jenner’s supporters in parliament raised a motion in the House of Commons for a second financial award for Jenner. They proposed an amount of £20,000. During the ensuing debate, Charles Shaw-Lefevre from Reading raised objections.
“I can only say that he is a person for whom I have great respect,” he said, speaking of Jenner, “but whether he be really the inventor of this remedy has been made a question. It is asserted that this has been invented so long ago as the year 1777.”
The chamber erupted.
“No! No! No!” echoed in all corners of the House.
Shaw-Lefevre pushed on.
“It is said that a man of the name of Jesty found out this remedy, and tried the experiment on himself and his family. I think that if this be true, and if this House chooses to be liberal to the inventor of this remedy, this vote should be extended to that man or to his family.”
No one else spoke for Jesty during the debate. In the end, with a fifty-six percent approval vote, the House of Commons granted Jenner £20,000, “as a farther reward for promulgating his discovery of Vaccine Inoculation.”
Jesty gave up all aspirations for pecuniary honors. Bell thought that Jesty’s circumstances in Downshay were favorable enough that Jesty thought the matter was not that important
Perhaps Pearson occasionally gazed at Jesty’s portrait. When the Original Vaccine Pock Institute shut its doors around 1826, Pearson hung the picture at his home in Hanover Square. Perhaps he reflected on his own ambitions, contributions, and opportunities for greatness. He remained tireless in his studies, sitting up late every night after his family had retired to their beds.
In November 1828, Pearson died following a fall at home. His son-in-law inherited the portrait and graciously presented it to Robert Jesty.
Jenner rose to venerated, almost canonized fame across the planet. While neither the idea nor the act of vaccinating with cowpox were original, Jenner was first to publish a systematic review of case reports. His untiring labor to promote vaccination, procure and distribute vaccines, use political connections and astuteness to advance the practice, were indisputable. He also made significant errors, and he could have given more credit to others who had preceded him, including Jesty.
Jenner may have feared diluting his credit or blemishing his reputation. It may have been inconceivable to yield to anyone below his social standing. But as bright as his star had been, tempering shine with gratitude and acknowledgment could not have tarnished that luster.
On the other hand, Jenner could have built an empire had he kept his process a secret. Instead, he shared the knowledge, knowing the universal benefit vaccination would bring. Almost two hundred years later, in 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly declared the world free of smallpox.
John Baron, Jenner’s zealous biographer, mentioned the “alleged” vaccination by Jesty in his work, arrogantly dismissing it as “valueless and inconsequential.” It is true that Jesty did not set out to a neighbor’s farm in Chetnole to save humanity. He did not propagate the practice nor correspond with medical experts all over the world. The plain farmer with an ordinary education simply wanted to protect the people he loved.
Jesty was compelled by nothing more than the noblest, most valued, most consequential of motivations.