Bioethics News

Would Jenner’s smallpox experiment pass a research ethics committee?

You have to pity Edward Jenner. He develops a vaccination for smallpox, saves countless lives in the process and eradicates one of the greatest scourges of humanity, yet is often accused of conducting unethical experiments.

The case seems indisputable. On May 14, 1796 Jenner vaccinated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, with material obtained from a milkmaid who had cowpox. A few weeks later he deliberately infected Phipps with smallpox to see if he would develop the disease. What could be more unethical than exposing a young boy to one of the most deadly diseases in the world simply to see if an unknown procedure would work?

But the story is more complex than this simple narrative suggests. In the 18th century, doctors carried out a procedure known as variolation to protect people from smallpox. This involved exposing people to a small dose of smallpox in order to give them a mild form of the disease, thereby protecting them from the full effects of the disease. It was not a risk-free procedure, and people often died as a result. However, given the terrible mortality of smallpox this was seen to be worthwhile.

Variolation had a long history in China, the Middle East and Africa. Its history in Britain was started by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, one of the most colourful characters in immunology. She originally eloped with her husband, and then went with him to Constantinople where he was ambassador.

Wortley Montagu wrote extensively about Ottoman life, wore Turkish dress, visited harems and Turkish baths and disguised herself as a man in order to get into the Hagia Sophia mosque.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.