Saturday, April 25, 2009

Book Review: Edward Jenner’s Cowpox Vaccine: The History of a Medical Myth By Peter Razzell

Crystal Zheng
Peter Razzell argues, in a very dry and tedious way, that the traditionally accepted story of Jenner’s discovery of cowpox as a vaccination against smallpox was nothing more than variolation, a practice which had been going on for centuries; in other words, the “cowpox” strain he was using was actually smallpox. He presents evidence from Jenner and other colleagues’ notebooks as well as historical epidemiological evidence.
His evidence does raise some questions and might prompt one to revisit this page in history, but is not enough to convince me of his argument. Although I commend him for taking a counter-approach to history, I think he does a lackluster job of convincing the reader of its significance. I want to know, other than as an interesting fact for the medical history book, why is it important for us to resolve this issue? The side cover gives a few hints into implications for the eradication of smallpox, but it is not discussed by Razzell in the text. The back cover claims that if Razzell is right, then Jenner is not such a big hero after all. Perhaps it is because I do not have the necessary background or appreciation, but the book leaves me with a big , “So what?”.
While the material is mostly historical, Razzell provides a refreshing last chapter about scientific discoveries that corroborate the observations of Jenner and early physicians working on smallpox. However, the 1977 book seems to be quite outdated, and anyone seeking information about recent research in smallpox should look elsewhere.
The material is fairly dense and technical, as it mostly uses primary material for evidence. I would suggest that anybody reading this book do so only after having a fair background to the material. This book presents a counter-interpretation of history; thus it is only logical that readers should first understand the accepted interpretation. Without this background, it is difficult for a reader to critically assess Razzell’s argument.
The most redeeming part of this book is that it reminds us to read history with a grain of skepticism. History is not truth written in stone, but is only transmitted to us as recorded through the eyes of people with ulterior motives. We should keep those motives in mind and critically assess any interpretation of history that we are presented with.

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