Edward Jenner in Kensington Gardens
While the imperialist Cecil Rhodes survived a recent campaign to have his statue removed from an Oxford University college, a little known bid to have the statue of an internationally renowned doctor returned to its rightful pedestal in London has been continuous for more than 150 years. Edward Jenner was the country surgeon who proposed in 1798 that a safer way of protecting against smallpox was to inoculate with a disease which affected cattle rather than the smallpox virus itself. Though the Royal Society refused to publish his proposal when it appeared as private paper it became an international sensation. Jenner called his miracle medicine variola vaccinae meaning literally “smallpox of the cow”. Its use soon became known as vaccination. In Jenner’s day it meant only inoculation against smallpox but was later applied to immunization against a great variety of infections in honour of his pioneering work.
There were problems with vaccination as there was no scientific understanding of how it worked. Many doctors were opposed to it and Jenner’s reputation rose and fell during his lifetime. When he died in 1823 friends and supporters asked for him to be interred in Westminster Abbey but the request was turned down. He was buried in the parish in Gloucestershire where his father had been a pastor and he had his medical practice. Nobody from London attended. From the earliest days of Jenner’s promotion of vaccination his fame was far greater abroad, in Europe and America in particular, than in Britain. When in the 1850s the sculptor William Calder Marshall proposed to a group of doctors that he create a memorial to Jenner they were enthusiastic but had difficulty in raising the necessary funds. The money was not found until an appeal was made to the medical profession abroad. The United States, which had introduced vaccination for smallpox soon after Jenner’s 1798 paper was published, made the largest donation, followed by Russia and in third place, Great Britain.
When in 1858 it was learned in Parliament that permission had been given by Queen Victoria to provide a plinth for Jenner in Trafalgar Square there were immediate protests. In the Commons Thomas Slingsby Duncombe MP was reported as saying:
“ Cowpox was a very good thing in its proper place, but it had no business among the naval and military heroes of the country. Everybody who heard of the statue spoke of it with ridicule and disgust……he trusted that the House would pass a resolution calling upon them not to pollute or desecrate the ground by erecting a statue there to the promulgator or cowpox throughout the country. “ Clearly Duncombe was anti-vaccination, but the chief objection expounded in the newspapers was that Trafalgar Square was reserved for military heroes and Jenner had no right to be there.
Jenner’s statue, covered before its unveiling, had been placed next to that of Sir Charles James Napier an army officer, and a number of newspapers remarked on the incongruity of a mere benefactor of mankind being afforded the same status as a brave leader who risked his life for his country. “ Why should Dr Jenner be found in such formidable society? “ asked the Times. Nevertheless, the unveiling of Calder Marshall’s statue went ahead in May 1858 with Prince Albert performing the inauguration ceremony. It remained there, despite many objections, until early in February 1862. The fact that Prince Albert had approved of the statue being in Trafalgar almost certainly extended Jenner’s residence there: his removal would have been seen as a snub to Royalty. Albert died on 14 December 1861 and Queen Victoria went into mourning. Just a few weeks later there were reports of a mysterious appearance of a statue of Jenner on a new site to the west of Trafalgar Square.
“ During the last few days vistors to Kensington-gardens have been surprised by the appearance of the statue of Dr Jenner, of small-pox vaccination celebrity standing–or rather sitting–with its natural air of placidity on a new pedestal……This statue,it will be remembered, was some time ago, promoted to a distinguished position near the Nelson Column…but it has been furtively removed to Kensingon-gardens without any cause for its ‘translation’ being assigned”. No fuss was made about this quiet act of demotion: most newspapers just remarked on the fact that Jenner gone from Trafalgar Square. The satirical magazine Punch could not resist publishing a few puns on “spots” including a little verse:
England’s ingratitude still blots
The escutcheon of the brave and free
I saved you many million spots,
And now you grudge one spot for me.
For many years Jenner’s statue was ignored. But his reputation has risen in recent years to perhaps its most illustrious level. The statue is smartened up and has a proper dedication on the plinth:
Edward Jenner MD FRS
Country Doctor who benefited Mankind
In Jenner’s time smallpox was a dreaded disease
worldwide and caused many deaths particularly of
children. Survivors were left badly scarred and
often blinded or deformed.
In 1769 Jenner vaccinated James Phipps with
cowpox and showed that the boy was immune
to smallpox. He predicted the worldwide eradication
of smallpox. This was finally achieved in 1980.
So far efforts to have him re-installed in Trafalgar Square have failed despite the backing of the British Medical Journal and a culture in which a medical man with a world-wide reputation might be regarded by the public and in Parliament as a good deal more worthy of adulation than a military leader.