Thursday, June 18, 2009

Book Review: "Jenner's Smallpox Vaccine"

Baxby’s Jenner’s Smallpox Vaccine is an impressive history of smallpox and smallpox vaccination, broad in scope and varied in sources (which was refreshing after the one-source Rotting Face). Essentially, Baxby seeks to outline the controversy surrounding the discovery of the vaccine and the mystery surrounding the origin of “vaccinia” the strain of vaccine that eventually become the norm.


I applaud his clarity in framing the debate in the first chapter. Using numbered lists and other organizational devices, Baxby leaves readers with no doubt about the basic issues he wishes to explicate. From here, he moves to a more general description of the disease, before jumping into the lives of his primary historical figures, such as Edward Jenner. I appreciated his use of scientific studies and data to back up his broad historical knowledge, which lent his text a legitimacy many smallpox or science authors lack, being written by historians with only a cursory scientific knowledge. He is, however, often self-referencing, perhaps a product of the little actual or valid scientific scholarship that has been done on the subject. His use of illustrations and photographs was effective as well; for a disease that is so visually manifested, this is a wise choice.


There are elements of the book, however, that I found less than appealing. Baxby often seems obsessed with who, exactly, received or should receive “credit” for the discovery of vaccine, vaccination, vaccinia, and other key components of the debate. Though recognition is important, his overuse of the word “credit,” sounding like a school examination, and the fact that most, if not all, of those worthy of such “credit” are dead made his impassioned cries seem, at times, rather silly. There are points in the text where Baxby seems to delight in vilifying Jenner; more effective, I think, would have been sympathy to the enormous numbers of Jenner fans in the world, while presenting the alternatives in the same rational, reasoned manner. Finally, Baxby would do well to tighten up his language to avoid ineffective and vague sentences, such as “Some critics had very pertinent points to make on these issues [the safety and effectiveness of vaccination], but some approaches were frankly hysterical” (5) in the middle of a paragraph. By diving right into his subject matter instead, Baxby would make his text both shorter and more exciting to read.

In short, Baxby’s text is important in that it presents alternative views of the smallpox vaccine’s early history that often get lost from mainstream view. Less self-awareness in the writing about his being “the first time this is attempted” (8) and a tone more sympathetic to mainstream readers who may hold Jenner as a hero would contribute to a more readable tone, I think, but Baxby’s book is worth reading. His scientific data is what separates this text from many others. 


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