The British Medical Journal (BMJ) supports a campaign to reinstate a statue of Edward Jenner – widely known for developing a vaccine against smallpox – in London’s Trafalgar Square. The Edward Jenner Museum, which is spearheading the campaign, says 2010 is timely; 30 years after the WHO’s (World Health Organization’s) declaration of the eradication of smallpox.

Jenner’s statue was unveiled in 1858 by Prince Albert. However, in 1862 it was moved to Kensington Gardens, where it remains today. The relegation was the result of pressure from anti-vaccinationists.

A BMJ report of 1862 said:

    “The pitiful memorial .. to Jenner had been banished even with ignominy from that honorable neighborhood of men esteemed great because they killed their fellow creatures whereas he only saved them.”

In an Editorial in this week’s issue of The British Medical Journal, Professor Gareth Williams, University of Bristol, explains how Jenner tested and proved his theory that cowpox infection gave immunity to smallpox “thus dragging vaccination into mainstream medical practice.”

At that time smallpox attacked 1 in every three people and killed 1 in every 12 infected patients. In the 20th century smallpox killed over 300 million people – survivors were left blinded or severely scarred.

Prof. Williams, the author of a new history of smallpox, describes how “worldwide admiration for Jenner flooded in” but that back in England, Jenner faced “concerted opposition” from anti-vaccinationists. “Leading doctors, jealous or dismissive of the provincial surgeon, set out to undermine vaccination,” while churchmen “appalled by people being infected with ‘bestial’ pus, bent Biblical texts to prove that vaccination was the Devil’s invention.”

Jenner’s opponents had little to offer as an alternative and “ultimately, vaccination was the decisive weapon that eradicated smallpox in 1978, nearly 180 years after Jenner voiced his aspiration that his invention would achieve that aim,” says Williams.

As such, Williams believes that Jenner’s statue deserves to be reinstated alongside the other Trafalgar Square heroes “for his role in the defeat of an enemy of all mankind … which killed far more people than all human wars combined.”

In defeating smallpox, Jenner also opened the door for immunization against many other infections, and vaccination has proved to be one of medicine’s most transferable technologies, he adds.

Williams urges people to sign a petition to persuade the government to put Jenner’s statue on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

“Put Edward Jenner’s statue back in Trafalgar Square”
Hero who defeated an enemy of all humankind
BMJ 2010;340:c1582

Written by Christian Nordqvist