27th May 2021

Book in Focus

Benjamin Jesty, the Grandfather of Vaccination

By Patrick John Pead

It’s very strange how life-changing events sometimes happen by chance. For example, if a certain pub had been open, I wouldn’t be writing this piece for Book in Focus. Whilst walking the Purbeck Coastal Path in 1985 during a holiday at Swanage, I sought refreshment at The Square and Compass pub in Worth Matravers, but found it closed that lunchtime due to building works. Whilst purchasing snacks at the village shop, my eye was drawn to a slim booklet entitled “The First Vaccinator: Benjamin Jesty”. I became very curious, for, being a microbiologist working in medicine, I had always understood that the Gloucestershire doctor Edward Jenner was the person who discovered vaccination. I purchased a copy and found that it concerned a dairy farmer named Benjamin Jesty who originated from Yetminster in North Dorset. I read that Mr Jesty had used cowpox to protect his wife and two sons against smallpox in the year 1774; this being a full 22 years before Jenner. Jesty is buried in the local churchyard and the inscription on his gravestone confirmed what I had read. Since that encounter, I have researched, written and given many talks about this intriguing figure and his remarkable story because I felt his endeavours should become part of the historical record.

From the beginning, the discovery of vaccination was clouded in myth and controversy that still persists. There is a common assumption that it was a medical ‘breakthrough’—an achievement attributable exclusively to one individual. This is a misconception. The true account is more complex, spanning the entire 18th century with necessary reference to earlier times. Initial attempts at stimulating immunity were rooted deep in folk wisdom and linked to medicinal practises of past civilisations. My book, Benjamin Jesty, the Grandfather of Vaccination, establishes precisely when and where the first known vaccination took place, as a development of what had gone before.

The first chapters deal with the nature of smallpox, its early treatments, which were pure quackery, and the first hazardous means of its prevention. The latter involved inoculating a person with live smallpox and became known as ‘The Inoculation’ in the first decades of the 1700s. Then follows a description of daily country life in mid-18th century England, setting the scene for introducing Jesty and his place within it. Next comes his ‘giant leap’ in acting upon the country notion of cowpox and its protective powers against smallpox, by performing the world’s first vaccination in a field at Chetnole, some 2 ½ miles from Yetminster. It is wholly appropriate, of course, to devote a chapter to the experiments conducted by Dr Edward Jenner in 1796 and 1798, including the vaccinations of two children with the same unusual surname as myself.

The second half of the volume begins with the rediscovery of the ‘long-lost’ oil portrait of Benjamin Jesty. Painted in London during 1805, it vanished in the late 19th century until found in South Africa by the author in 2004 after a protracted ‘detective’ investigation. Further chapters deal with its acquisition, repatriation and restoration by The Wellcome Trust whose decision to purchase was directly influenced by the author’s published work. The initial exhibition was launched at Dorchester Museum on the 26th October 2009, being the 30th anniversary of the first announcement of the global eradication of smallpox. The portrait is now held in the archives of the Wellcome Collection.

The history of the headstone memorials of Benjamin and Elizabeth Jesty is also set out in detail in the book, which also offers various illustrations together with an account of their restoration and rededication in 2008.

The final section of the book is firstly an examination, and in-depth analysis, of the myths, rumours and realities surrounding other ‘cowpoxers’ in order to establish Jesty as the first vaccinator. This is followed by a similar approach to establishing the awareness of Jesty’s vaccinations within and outside of Dorset, especially Gloucestershire. Dr Jenner’s magnificent contribution is reassessed as a consequence. However, why did he finally act after years of reluctance? Did he know about Jesty? Who really discovered vaccination? Jenner is rightly regarded as the father of vaccination, but should the ‘Intellectual Property’ for the procedure be awarded to Jesty?

Here is a tale of endeavour spiced with human interest, the story of a quest that witnessed Man’s attempts to find immunity to smallpox straddling a timeline of the globe from Ancient China to the continent of Europe, from Africa to the New World. It details a noble resolve that came to fruition in the countryside of Georgian England and provided the foundation for today’s continuing healthcare research in our fight against microbes.

Though intended primarily as an academic reference resource, Benjamin Jesty, the Grandfather of Vaccination forms an enjoyable read for the general public. It tells a fascinating story of an historic figure who deserves greater recognition. A Kindle version of the hardback has recently been released.

Reviews for the book have been very encouraging. Here is a short selection:

“[This book is] meticulously researched text, against which any future biography will require to be compared.”
Journal of Medical Biography

“This book is well written and is a true labour of love, providing an extremely thorough account of Jesty’s role in the discovery of vaccination.”
British Society for the History of Medicine

“I hope to make good use of [this book] in my history of medicine teaching at Durham.”
Professor A-H Maehle
History of Medicine and Medical Ethics, Durham University, UK

“[This] book on Benjamin Jesty, which looks fantastic, I will recommend to all here.”
Professor Mark Jackson
Director, Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter, UK

“I will recommend [the book] to both medical and history students as a useful resource.”
Professor Sally Sheard
History of Medicine, University of Liverpool, UK

“I will bring the book to the attention of my colleagues and our students.”
Professor Malcolm Nicolson
History of Medicine, University of Glasgow, UK

“It is a wonderful work, summarizing the history with great balance.”
Professor Barry Coller
Rockefeller University, USA

“[It is] a significant contribution to history.”
Professor Jeffery Baker
Duke University, USA

“I am at a loss for words to convey my admiration for [this work’s] achievement.”
Professor Samuel Katz
Duke University, USA

Read Extract

Patrick John Pead is a microbiologist who worked for the Public Health Laboratory Service, specialising in the scientific diagnosis of human virus diseases. Shortly after taking early retirement, he was invited to assist with academic research in the Departments of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the School of Medicine within the University of Southampton, UK. In 2011, he was awarded Fellowship of The Historical Association for his work on Benjamin Jesty.

Benjamin Jesty, the Grandfather of Vaccination is available now in Hardback. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.