Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Pox On None Of Our Houses.

Being a man who knows how to entertain children, I took them to see the birth place of immunisation last week:

Pass me my silver-ended bulls horn old chap.
As you can see, it was like a fairyland grotto for my kids. What four year-old boy doesn't dream of being taken to a museum dedicated to Edward Jenner? That's right kids, it's his genuine desk where he actually worked, or an accurate facsimile thereof yay!

Okay, so even I know the limits of the child psyche, although they did enjoy running around the rooms trying to eat original manuscripts and get some scalpels out of a locked cabinet. The real reason we went was because there was a hedgehog awareness day going on in the grounds, and I want to ensure my kids respect hedgehogs and are never seen smashing them against the wall trying to get the conker out.

Obviously, hedgehogs are the poster animal for immunisation, what with having a back full of needles, that and acupuncture, so it's not quite the topical non sequitur you might initially think, having a hedgehog open day in Jenner's garden.

It was pleasantly informative. They had various hedgehog accoutrement on display, including what they eat (anything smaller than them) and what eats them (anything that needs a toothpick), as well as other dangers inherent to being a wandering spiky insectivore, such as dogs, ponds and conker hunters, as well as a stunt hedgehog who only had three legs as a result of an entanglement with a strimmer.

Spank me! I dare you.

After a while we had exhausted the hogaciousness of the hedgehog gazebo and went for a wander through the grounds.

That day young, enthusiastic archeology students from Bristol University were rooting around in big square holes in the grounds. My one year-old daughter is fascinated by anything which feasibly involves a dangerous fall and went over at once to examine the dig. On that day they had various finds, such as a square shard of pottery, a triangular shard of pottery, a brown stone, a red stone, and a reddy-brown stone.

And two days after we'd been there, a skeleton.


We moved from archeology to horticulture and went for a walk around Jenner's garden, which had lots of pretty things like borders, and grass, and flowers, and an orangery for growing grapes in. Technically a grapery, I believe.

Edward Jenner was one of those wealthy, scientific types with interests in natural history and medicine, but it was his research into vaccinations that earned him the epithet of Father of Immunology.

And Stabby McStabberson.

Vaccination involves introducing a denatured, weakened or dead version of a virus into your system so the body develops an immune response to it without actually having to go through all that palaver of being particularly ill.

But if you haven't got the technology to denature a virus (presumably some sort of small apple-corer) you need to look elsewhere. In the case of smallpox, Jenner found a naturally less potent but nonetheless related virus. Enter cowpox, essentially a wuss version of smallpox.

Folk lore had noted (and peer reviewed, by other folk) that people exposed to the relatively benign cowpox rarely went on to develop the much more dangerous, often fatal smallpox. Jenner inoculated a boy with cowpox, left it a few weeks, and then valiantly tried to give him smallpox but couldn't, thus providing and benefiting all humankind with the glory of vaccination.

Good job for the kid that it worked.

Word got around and vaccination became the thing to have done, and it shows a forward thinking mindset to be rather taken with the idea of vaccination and immunisation, because they came from miles around to be infected and protected. Farmers and field hands. maids and Morris men (presumably), all queued up to let Jenner inoculate them with cowpox in order to provide immunity from smallpox.

Of course, a gent such as Edward Jenner wouldn't want (potentially diseased) oiks dragging their muddy hooves through his gracious home, so he sensibly set up an external surgery where it could be done in the comfort of his own garden. Known as Jenner's Shed, it was where the actual vaccinations would take place. Jenner even named it The Temple of Vaccinia, showing he had the naming skills of a fourteen year-old writing a fantasy novel.

Anyway, it is rather pretty and any self respecting bloke would be proud to have it as a man-space. Here it is:

Roll up! Roll up! Roll up your sleeve!

The small urchin on the floor there is my daughter, The Bonobo, who has directly benefited from Jenner's work because she has herself been fully immunised from a host of once dangerous diseases. This is lucky as she's eating pebbles.

In  the late 1970s, an extensive survey of the world found no signs of smallpox in the human population with no natural reservoirs and so, in 1980, it was finally declared extinct in the wild.

Of course, like any decent horror story, it's not completely gone. There are still tiny pockets, small living colonies kept alive in laboratories under high security in case it or anything similar ever made an appearance in the future. Much discussion has gone in to whether we should destroy these stocks once and for all, with governments arguing that it would be foolish to burn our bridges, should we ever need to study it again, and critics suggesting that its genome has been fully sequenced so it could be recreated from closely related viruses should the need arise, which is a scary thought all on its own.

If we do go ahead and eliminate smallpox utterly, it would be the first deliberate extinction of another species by humankind in all our history, which opens up all sorts of ethical discussions.

Whatever the outcome, I'm hope that, with a thirty per cent fatality incidence from smallpox infection, there is at least ominous music playing in those storage labs just to remind the technicians exactly what they're responsible for, and to be extra, extra careful when storing their butties in the fridge next to the smallpox tin.


  1. Heh. TJ. That little house was totally shaped like a man's bizness. Just sayin'. A short and stubby one but still.

    What child wouldn't love a day out in Vaccination land? So do you have any day trips to abattoirs or factories that make mail sacks, planned?

  2. Wow, I learned a lot! My kids would have enjoyed that adventure too - as long as there was cotton candy.

  3. Your blogsite is going viral!
    I'm for eradication of Cowpox udderly (I'm going to milk this pun 'til the cows come home).

    The shot shack reminds me of illustrations in a Tolkein book.

  4. I can reccommend a good tractor museum you can take them to.

  5. Veggie Ass - I do now!

    Wow, TWA - Is it cowpox-flavoured candy?

    eric - I wish I was immune to those puns. And 'shot shack'. Liking that!

  6. I laughed, Lord help me, out loud, many times while reading this post. Now I will move on to the post-post satisfied sigh. There now, thanks.

  7. Tony Van Helsing - My boy would REALLY like that.

    Nicole - So glad you liked it! Thank you.

  8. Have you eve considered the wilds that "Gravity Land" has to offer? Yes, this went down initially with great enthusiasm with 2 of my nephews before they walked into Isaac Newton's home/museum!!

    Loving the Hedgehog Conkers: Honkers or Cedgehoggs?!?!

    Another laugh out loud but hugely informative piece- thank you for educating me about the history of vaccinations, I am all the wiser for it.

  9. What a marvellously educational post. Now all I need to know is: what the bleedin' heck is a stimmer?

  10. "If we do go ahead and eliminate smallpox utterly, it would be the first deliberate extinction of another species by humankind in all our history, which opens up all sorts of ethical discussions."

    Oh man, do I ever love talk like that. Keep it coming.


  11. Cass - I dunno. I found Gravity Land to be a bit of a downer. Nice orchard though.

    tennysoneehemingway - Ta. And a strimmer is a device used for blinding creatures hiding in long grass. Quite popular with those of us too lazy to use shears at ground level.

    in bed with married women - Aha, I can witter on like that indefinitely!

  12. Dagnabit Ive gone and learned something.. (which of course means I have forgotten something else...but what?)
    We dont have Hedgehogs here although New Zealand does for some reason.. We have the bigger harder version, the Echidna, which only eats ants and therefore has bad breath.(one of the few Australian creatures that cant kill you)
    I see youre teaching your little one how to steal gravel for the farm, though you can surely keep the finding and cleaning phase.

  13. Minnesota has the world's largest roll of twine. Quite impressive. The Bonobo (love it) would look teeny-tiny next to it...


  14. You made the trip to Genocide-Jenner's home funny and interesting. I wish he had also developed immunization against publicity-hungry and talentless celebs (for my blog)but hey,I'll just have to keep working on it.

    Great writing as always

  15. Tempo - I reckon an echidna could kill you. If you choked on one. And apologies for tricking you into learning summat mate.

    Pearl - The Bonobo looks pretty teeny-tiny anyway. And well done Minnesota. I wonder if I'll ever get to see it or if it will be a case of Never the twine shall meet.

    I'm so sorry for that . . .

    Joe - Thank you mate. Wish I'd thought of Jennercide as a pun. And celbricide is frowned on, I understand, although I've no idea why.

  16. I cant believe you didn't mention the hedgehog trading cards that appear to be laying around on that table!

    I have the Herbie the Hedgehog rookie card myself, worth a small fortune.

  17. I had no idea that Bruce Jenner invented smallpox! Fascinating! Also, I never would have guessed that his clinic was in a smurf hovel. Thanks for the history lesson.

  18. SkylersDad - Is that like Top Trumps? I wonder what would win out of a hedgehog and an echidna? And a conker.

    BetaDad - He was also Smurfette's gynacologist, so it makes sense. He often smurfed her. Smurfed her good.

  19. *ack* damn, sugar! i thought i'd left a witty comment here earlier, but, alas, it seems i only thought it and didn't post it! *sigh* anyway, so much for that, BUT, it does occur to me that there is a museum in paris for baccarat crystal that the MITM wanted me to see, but we never seem to remember to go there when we're in town. xoxoxox

    (it's houseguest insanity that is causing me to ramble, i do apologize!)

  20. ohmygosh. too funny.

    also, my brother had a hedgehog back in the day. aren't they the most bizarre creatures?!


  21. Savvy - Better late than never! I do hope your guesty conundrum is sorting itself out, by the way!

    Kelly - Thank you. Very cute though!

  22. I now see the pebble-eating reference. Funny!


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