Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review: "Vaccination Against Smallox" by Edward "The Man" Jenner

To say that Edward Jenner’s “Vaccination Against Smallpox” was a dull read is comparable to saying that hell is a bit warm.  While trudging through this oeuvre, I could not help but imagine myself doing more enjoyable things—like punching myself repeatedly, or walking over a bed of hot coals, or even sitting through a Dane Cook routine…Well, that’s taking it too far, maybe not the last one.  I consider myself a proponent of primary sources, but my point is not to make the mistake of reading this word for word.  Jenner is painstakingly thorough in documenting all of his cases, but they are more or less the same.  Furthermore, the deluge of letters from his peers is redundant and not at all necessary even in the rhetorical sense.

 Nonetheless, the importance of this work should not be diminished.  In the context of medical science in the 18th century, this dissertation was a breakthrough; it employs many of the fixtures of modern experimental science we take for granted today: objectivity, theory, and most importantly, reproducibility.  Jenner constructs a convincing argument that is grounded upon fact and direct observation despite the lack of strict controls (as is seen from his confusion about the source of Vaccinia) and rigorous statistical analysis.  Unfortunately, it has none of the minimalist laconism that is somewhat evident in the slim majority of the scientific literature today.  “Vaccination” was probably conceived to convince Jenner’s peers that vaccination was indeed a viable and safer alternative to Variolation.  That purpose today is moot, since smallpox has been eradicated, but it is worth skimming to gain knowledge of the context of Jenner’s work. 



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