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Pathfinders:Thinking Outside the Pox

The debate continues among Londoners about what to put on the famous Trafalgar Square ‘fourth plinth’ which has so far hosted a wide range of wacky installations and whose present incumbent, a statue of a certain KR Park, will elicit from most people the question ‘Who?’ Now the British Medical Journal has weighed in with an editorial backing the campaign of the Edward Jenner Museum to have his statue parked in what is apparently the fourth most visited tourist attraction on Earth. For those with no interest in the history of science, and who don’t do pub quizzes, Edward Jenner is acclaimed worldwide as the man who invented the vaccination against smallpox, a disease which has probably killed and maimed more people than all the wars of history combined.

The BMJ makes a good case too. It is now 30 years since the World Health Organisation formally announced that smallpox was extinct in the wild. Jenner arguably saved more lives than any other single human being, yet most statues are of professional killers with aristocratic titles and the status of war heroes. It would also be cheap to do, as unlike the Battle of Britain chief cited above, the statue would not cost £100,000 to make because it already exists. Indeed this is the whole point. It was in Trafalgar Square, but was booted out of the square by Jenner-haters and dumped in Kensington Gardens. (‘Put Edward Jenner’s statue back in Trafalgar Square’, BMJ, 25 March).

The question why is an interesting one. It turns out that, far from being grateful, a gaggle of vested interests, petty jealousies and wild-eyed ‘anti-vaccinationists’ led a concerted campaign to discredit the greatest discovery in medical science up to that date. To our modern gaze this seems completely bonkers until we remember the MMR affair, and the fact that some people are quicker to believe a Sun editorial than the considered views of the scientific mainstream. There was also intense religious opposition to the Devil’s work of being infected by ‘bestial pus’, and this also seems somewhat hard to credit until we recall how polio, on the verge of being wiped out like smallpox, has instead resurged in a dozen countries because local imams went around telling parents that the vaccine was a CIA drug to make their daughters sterile. And let us not forget the Pope’s own heroic efforts to persuade Africans that condoms can lead to the spread of AIDS.

Another interesting aspect to the story is that were Edward Jenner working today he would undoubtedly be arrested, prosecuted and vilified for recklessly exposing children to health risks and attempting to cover up at least one child death resulting from his experiments. Back in the 1790s they had a spirited, hands-on approach to experimentation (anyone they could get their hands on). Those who continue to oppose all animal experimentation today might like to ask themselves whether they would be prepared, as Jenner did, to try out new unproven treatments on their own son.

A third aspect is that Jenner arguably got the credit for somebody else’s discovery, in this case the Dorset farmer Benjamin Jesty, who had successfully used the technique 20 years earlier in 1774. Jenner supposedly didn’t know about this earlier work, but this seems unlikely given that there were at least 5 other people besides Jesty who had already successfully used cowpox vaccine to achieve smallpox immunity, and given that the technique was common knowledge among many farmers who did know about Jesty and who regularly and deliberately exposed their families to cowpox. However, Jenner published and they didn’t, or more probably, Jenner published and they couldn’t. Jenner, after all, was a member of the Royal Society with powerful friends and the Dorset farmers were just Dorset farmers. So we won’t be seeing any statues of them in Trafalgar Square. Even today there are complaints that ‘outsiders’ are prevented from getting published recognition and have to watch their discoveries being ‘discovered’ by somebody else (for instance here: ‘Should volunteer amateurs get credit in the scientific community for the discoveries they make?’, www.scientificblogging.com/rock_whacker, 23 March). Science is a collaborative business, and giving credit where it’s due is not always straightforward, but the real problem is that science in capitalism is overwhelmingly elitist and hierarchical, so that not only do you not get on, or in, if your face doesn’t fit, neither do your ideas. Of all the challenges facing science, its failure to address the limitations of its own capitalist structure forms its biggest blind spot.