Benjamin Jesty was a farmer. He kept cows near Yetminster in southern England in the late 1770.
Nothing much happened in Yetminster other than the annual affair, yet, this quiet town, composed of families who counted their days in births, courtships, marriages, more births and deaths, was to be the origin of a medical practice that changed the health of the world.
Benjamin Jesty was a man of the country. He fitted the rural pattern. He had been born on Upbury farm and as a child ran around the byres and stables as early as he could toddle. He particularly liked the lowing of the cows and they, in turn, seemed to like the toddler who ran between their legs and brought them handfuls of oats. Before Ben could speak he would imitate the soft mooing of his favourite beasts.
However, despite gentle family life in a beautiful pastoral countryside all was not always well in southern England. The scenic farms and a life filled with the joy of hard work and all that it accomplished were misleading. Disease was visited upon the land, often brought by passing travellers from Europe. A few hundred years ago waves of the bubonic plague swept across these green fields and left the country depopulated. One in three of the inhabitants died.
Now, the current disease was small pox a disfiguring disease without cure. People rarely lived after contracting it although Benjamin had. As a young boy he had suffered a mild form while many of his extended family, aunts and uncles and cousins, died. The disease didn’t discriminate. It took the noble just as easily as the common man. In the past few years, so Benjamin had heard, a Czar, the Holy Roman Emperor and the French King, Louis XV, had all died of the disease. Money and power provided no protection. Smallpox was not something to be trifled with.
Yet in 1774 the disease raged around southern England. In particular, many people died in Yetminster. Albert died.
Albert had been a good friend in school and was always to be relied upon. Now a farmer too, he was generous and always an uncomplaining help when Benjamin needed another pair of hands, or when times were hard, when the chickens wouldn’t lay or when the cows dried up. Albert died from smallpox leaving a wife and family of four little ones. It brought the disease close to home for Benjamin. He thought of his own family.
There was an old-age tradition in the region that those who caught cowpox a milder form of smallpox didn’t die of smallpox, though it was one of those traditions based on few well-repeated instances and it was more of a subject for the alehouse than anywhere else.
Still, Benjamin was worried about his family. Elizabeth was pregnant again so he had responsibility for a potential family of six. He forbade Elizabeth to go into market. Since he had already had the disease as a child and had survived, he made sure he was the only person who greeted visitors or who visited Yetminster.
Now he knew that Ann and Mary, his dairymaids, had already had cowpox and they had nursed family members with smallpox without contracting the disease, so Benjamin realised that the country tradition may have some truth to it. As Ann said, “Cowpox is nasty but at least we didn’t die.”
“I don’t think,” she added, “that we would ever catch smallpox now.”
Ben reasoned logically in the dark of a restless night that if the dairymaids who had accidentally caught cowpox were immune to smallpox then someone who caught cowpox deliberately might equally be immune to smallpox.
It was an astounding and new thought. No one had had the idea before.
Benjamin made up his mind to give his family a dose of cowpox as protection against the smallpox that was plaguing the area.
Then an outbreak of cowpox occurred at the Elford farm in the next village of Chetnole so Benjamin and his pregnant wife walked the three miles there with their two sons, aged 2 and 3, to test his theory. He thought the baby little Elizabeth might be too young so she was left at home with his mother.
With Mr. Elford, in the middle of a field, Benjamin took infected pus from the udder of a cow and scratched his wife’s arm at the elbow with a stocking darning needle. He inserted the pustular matter in her blood and did the same thing for his boys, Robert and little Benjamin, and then bound all three wounds with linen. Farmer Elford stood by, aghast that someone could do such a thing to his family.
In the next few days, Elizabeth and the boys were ill and everyone was miserable with itchy sores on their faces, arms and legs yet in a few days it had passed and the two boys were soon running around as usual.
As a result, after an initial horrified reaction from those who heard, Benjamin became a source of derision in the neighbourhood. Alehouse gossip had it that he was so enamoured with cows that he wanted to turn his whole family into the bovine creatures.
He was hooted at, reviled, and pelted with vegetables whenever he attended markets in the neighbourhood. Yet, he remained undaunted and never failed from this cause to attend his duties, a current account read.
Yet not only did the dread disease of smallpox never visit the Jesty family but also others in the neighbourhood quietly came to Benjamin to ask for the same immunity.
More than twenty years after Benjamin had given his wife and sons that first dose of protective cowpox, in 1796 a doctor who practised in the neighbouring county and who had heard what Jesty had done, used the same inoculation on a boy, James Phipps, at Berkeley in Gloucestershire. That doctor, Edward Jenner, advertised what he had done and received all the public credit for inventing vaccination injection from a cow (vacca).
In 1805, Benjamin Jesty was invited to London to appear before the Vaccine Pock Institution. Elizabeth was pleased. She said, “Ben, why don’t you buy a new up-to-date fashioned suit for the visit?” But, always the farmer, he replied, “I don’t see why I should dress better in London than in the country,” so as a farmer he travelled to the city with his eldest son, Robert. There, twelve medical officers of the Institution examined him on his inoculations and Robert was injected with smallpox thus proving he was still totally immune from the disease. The Institute awarded Jesty a pair of gold-mounted lancets in commemoration of his use of a darning needle; a testimonial scroll; fifteen guineas expenses, and a portrait commissioned as a testimonial.
Yet, despite this vindication of his work and despite the facts being presented to the House of Commons, Benjamin Jesty was virtually forgotten thereafter and Edward Jenner was celebrated for the next hundred years as the originator of vaccination.
A British Medical Journal writer in 1995 said, “Falsehood flies and truth comes limping after.” This is entirely true in the case of the first person to vaccinate people against smallpox.