It has been said that the discovery of the smallpox vaccine in the late eighteenth century by Freemason, Edward Jenner has saved more lives than the work of any other man: Jenner has been fairly described as the ‘father of immunology’.
The publication in 1798 of Jenner’s findings that cowpox could protect against the feared and usually fatal disease – smallpox – gained him instant support by members of the scientific community. Recognition of his work was reflected in the foundation of the Jennerian Society in London in 1803 by admirers in order to promote vaccination among the poor; Jenner was actively involved in its affairs. Government grants followed and Jenner carried out further experimental work on his vaccine. His interest in science led him to form a number of scientific societies and he was to become a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Jenner was an active Freemason, serving in 1812 as Master of the Royal Lodge of Faith and Friendship, No. 270, based in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. This lodge was regularly visited by the Prince of Wales – the future George IV – and was a lodge that was to become associated with the Jenner family.
The Defeat of Smallpox
Jenner was born in Berkeley in 1749 and had been inoculated against smallpox while at school. This inoculation, or variolation as it was termed, was a method of deliberately introducing smallpox to a person, thus giving them the disease so they could acquire immunity. It was a practice that carried its own risk of infection to others but was seen as safer than becoming infected with the disease during an outbreak. However, this variolation was to adversely affect his general health throughout his life and no doubt gave him the impetus to find an effective and safer method of immunity against the disease.
At thirteen Jenner was apprenticed to a local surgeon before going on to study surgery and anatomy under the celebrated surgeon John Hunter in London, who became a lifelong friend. He returned to his native Berkeley in 1773 and set up a successful practice of his own. It was here in 1796 that Jenner made his observation that milkmaids who had caught the milder disease known as cowpox – which resulted in a blister rash mainly on the hands – seemed to be immune from the more aggressive and deadly smallpox.
To test his theory, Jenner had to experiment by introducing cowpox to someone who had not had smallpox, which he confidently did with James Phipps, the eight-year old son of his gardener. Jenner made a few scratches on the boy’s arm and rubbed into them some infected material from the hands of a milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, who had contracted cowpox. Jenner then introduced smallpox to the boy through the traditional variolation technique and, as predicted, the boy did not develop the disease. Jenner subsequently tested many other people with his vaccine, proving his theory that cowpox gave a greater immunity to smallpox.
Edward Jenner was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1789, not for his medical work but for his research on the study of the then misunderstood nesting habits of the cuckoo. Indeed, Jenner embraced the study of nature in a wider sense, examining many aspects of the natural world in order to gain a deeper understanding of what he saw as God’s work. He was also an avid fossil-hunter and geologist: in 1819 he found a fossil of what would become known as the plesiosaur. At this time, a theory was developing that regarded fossils as the remains of species that could be extinct, a theory which Jenner came to support, saying that ‘Fossils are…monuments to departed worlds’.
Fascinated by new ideas concerning any form of natural philosophy, Jenner had taken an interest in ballooning, launching his own balloon in 1784, which successfully flew a number of miles. He also enthusiastically studied the hibernation of animals during winter as well as the mystery of bird migration. He suggested that some birds left Britain for the winter and returned for the summer – a theory that contradicted the tradition that birds slept in mud for the winter.
He maintained an active correspondence with other eminent Freemasons of the period who shared his theories and ideas; Freemasons such as Sir Joseph Banks, a member of the Royal Somerset House and Inverness Lodge, No. 4, who served as president of the Royal Society, and Erasmus Darwin, initiated 1754 into Lodge St. Davids, No. 36 (S.C.), who was involved with the Birmingham-based Lunar Society, a number of whose members were Freemasons.
The Royal Lodge of Faith and Friendship held a Science Select Lodge organised by Jenner where lodge members had to produce a paper on a specific scientific subject; this Science Select Lodge was reminiscent of the Lunar Society meetings. Other lectures had taken place within masonic lodges throughout the country, such as the Old Kings Arms Lodge, No. 28, London, the lectures being intricately entwined with the lodge meeting itself. Another example of scientific teaching taking place within lodges can be seen in the Lodge of Lights, No. 148, Warrington, which held lectures on Newtonian gravitational astronomy in 1800 and 1801. All three lodges are still working today.
The Royal Lodge of Faith and Friendship continued to celebrate the life and work of Edward Jenner after his death in 1823 and other members of Jenner’s family, such as his nephews Henry Jenner and the clergyman William Davies, became members. The lodge emblem, used to this day, commemorates the gift to Jenner of a wampum belt by the Five Nations of North America after Jenner personally sent them a sample of the cowpox virus along with a copy of his work on vaccination; Jenner wore this belt in front of his apron at the last masonic meeting he attended.
In 1825, members of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Gloucestershire subscribed sufficient funds to erect a memorial statue to him in Gloucester Cathedral.
Jenner certainly studied many aspects of the ‘hidden mysteries of nature and science’ and seemed to have found in Freemasonry a means by which he could convey his scientific beliefs as well as his spiritual and moralistic values. His studies of nature were firmly in balance with his belief in God’s grand design of the universe. In a letter to his friend, the Rev. Thomas Pruen, he wrote:
The weather may be inconvenient for the designs of man, but must always be in harmony with the designs of God, who has not only this planet, our Earth, to manage, but the universe. The whole creation is the work of God’s hands. It cannot manage itself. Man cannot manage it, therefore, God is the manager.