Ask the average textbook, “Who invented vaccination?” The response will most likely be, “Well, Edward Jenner, of course!” However, this common response might not be quite true. Another man, a fellow Englishman, might have the prior claim. In 1774, farmer Benjamin Jesty performed the same vaccination procedure that would someday make Jenner famous of cowpox building immunity to smallpox, more than two decades prior to Jenner’s work in 1796. However, was Jesty robbed in fame by Jenner? Perhaps that is not quite a fair assessment.
For one thing, between 1760 and 1790, at least six English, Danish and German researchers did exactly what Jesty did—that is to put the pus of cowpox sores into a human beings in order to induce artificial immunity. In fact, a paper was submitted to the London Medical Society by Fewster in 1765. So, if Jenner is undeserving of the credit, Jesty is no more deserving.
Furthermore, Jenner is credited as being the discoverer of vaccination. Jesty’s work was nothing more than a “try” to protect his wife and sons from smallpox after hearing of Fewster’s paper. In contrast, Jenner’s work in vaccination was based in the scientific method and featured a hypothesis, an early version of experimental design, and a conclusion based on the results. Further, instead of just observing that it worked, as Jesty and other predecessors of Jenner had, Jenner hypothesized as to why. Though his explanations were not completely correct, Jenner’s work in explaining why, and not the act itself, is what gives Jenner recognition as the Father of Vaccination and the Father of Immunology. Jenner did more than to simply inoculate, he proved the vaccine and he pioneered the way into a world of discovering how and why the human body has such a profound ability to protect itself against invading agents.
This is not to deny that Jesty was not a thoughtful and noble man who pushed the envelope. He endured a lot of turmoil and persecution for believing in something that had never been thought before. His neighbors spat upon his name, especially when his wife had a severe reaction to the vaccination. Even after the reaction was resolved, neighbors called Jesty a barbarian and ridiculed him. Jesty was brave and insightful and deserving of the modern world’s praise for his character traits. However, credit for founding immunology, founding vaccination and bringing vaccination out of the realm of interesting phenomena and into the realm of reliable medical science still rightly belongs with Edward Jenner.