A Brief Biography of Edward Jenner

By Tim Lambert

His Early Life

Edward Jenner was an English doctor famous for his role in defeating smallpox. (In the 18th century smallpox was a terrible disease that killed many people. Even if the patient survived they were often scarred.) Jenner was born on 17 May 1749 in Berkeley in Gloucestershire, England. He was the son of Reverend Stephen Jenner and his wife Sarah. The couple had 9 children but 3 of them died in childhood.

Edward attended local schools and in 1764 he became an apprentice to a surgeon. He studied at St Georges Hospital in London between 1772 and 1774. Jenner then became a doctor in his native town. In 1788 he married Catherine. The couple had 3 children. Jenner and his wife were comfortably off.

The Turks practiced inoculation against smallpox. Smallpox pus was taken from a pustule and introduced into a patient’s bloodstream through a scratch. It was hoped they would develop a mild form of the disease and so become immune to a more severe form. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey and she introduced the practice into Britain in 1721. No doubt it saved many lives but it was risky. The vaccination process invented later in the century was safer.


In the 18th century, many people realized that if milkmaids caught cowpox they then became immune to smallpox. On 14 May 1796, Edward Jenner took cowpox material and introduced it into the bloodstream of an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps. (Jenner was not the first man to think of this idea, a Dorset doctor named Benjamin Jesty had tried it earlier but it was due to Jenner that it became a common practice). Jenner carried out more vaccinations and he eventually published his findings in 1798.

Jenner became famous. However, his wife died in 1815. Edward Jenner himself died on 26 January 1823. He was buried in Berkeley.

There is a crater on the Moon named after Jenner.