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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

 

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

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Was Jane Austen Vaccinated?

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ June 29, 2021

Photo: Basingstoke Gazette, Ophelia King

With world-wide attention, and sometimes controversy, focused on the importance of vaccinations these days, and with a new appreciation of their marvels as we see statistics of the Coronavirus pandemic falling dramatically in countries well supplied with serum, one gains a new perspective on the importance of medical science to our world.

What must it have been like before any sort of inoculation against disease was discovered? That thought led me to look into the history of the development of vaccinations. The story of the development of this science that burgeoned in the Eighteenth Century then led me to ask what was defense against disease like in Jane Austen’s day?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I thought the story would begin in 1796 with Edward Jenner’s use of material from cowpox pustules to provide protection against smallpox. It seems, though, that the actual story goes back much further than that. There is evidence that the Chinese practiced a form of vaccination against smallpox early in the eleventh century. The practice apparently spread from there to Africa and to Turkey before coming to Europe and America. (A useful timeline can be found here.)

The early system of immunizing people against smallpox was variolation, rather than vaccination. This involved a process of taking material from an infected person in an attempt to induce a mild, but protective, infection. The procedure was to rub material from powdered smallpox scabs or fluid from pustules into superficial scratches made in the skin of the person being inoculated.

The normal process of infections was for the virus to spread through the air, infecting first the mouth, nose, or respiratory tract, before spreading throughout the body by the lymphatic system, resulting in severe illness, disfigurement, and often death. In contrast, infection of the skin usually led to a milder, localized infection, but still induced immunity to the virus.  If the process was successful the patient would develop pustules like those caused by naturally acquired smallpox, but after a few weeks the patient would recover.

In 1775, the year of Jane Austen’s birth, and the year the “family feud” between England and her American colonies was beginning, a smallpox epidemic broke out in Boston. This complicated George Washington’s siege of the Redcoats in Boston. British troops had been either variolated or exposed to the disease in the past, but the Continental Army was vulnerable.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Washington himself was immune, as he had survived a case of smallpox in 1751 whilst in Barbados. Vice president John Adams had been inoculated during an earlier Boston epidemic in 1764. He recorded the ordeal in his journal—something to make the most squeamish of us thankful for the ease of simply baring our arm and receiving a jab or two for a Covid vaccination today.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Adams said his arduous experience consisted of a “milk Diet and a Course of Mercurial Preparations, till they reduced me very low before they performed the operation. They continued to feed me with Milk and Mercury through the whole Course of it, and salivated me to such a degree, that every tooth in my head became so loose that I believe I could have pulled them all with my Thumb and finger. By such means they conquered the Small Pox.” 

Photo: Public Domain

Another disease that somewhat regularly reached epidemic proportions in England and Europe, including during Jane Austen’s lifetime, was typhus. During Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, more French soldiers died of typhus than were killed by the Russians. Then a major epidemic began in Ireland in 1816, during the famine which followed “The Year Without a Summer” caused by the explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

Photo: YouTube

We know that Jane Austen almost died from Typhus in 1783 when she was seven years old. Jane and her sister Cassandra were sent to Oxford to be educated by Mrs. Ann Cawley who took them with her to Southampton when she moved there later in the year. Both girls caught typhus that autumn, as did their cousin Jane Cooper. Their mothers, Mrs. Austen and her sister Mrs. Cooper came immediately to remove their daughters from the school. Tragically, Mrs. Cooper caught the infection and died.

 

Photo: A Dame's School, Thomas George Webster (detail)

It is fortunate that this exposure would have rendered Jane immune to Typhus since the first typhus vaccines were not developed until the 1970s. It is interesting to note that, although they provided some level of protection, they were given only to those at the highest risk of acquiring epidemic typhus because they often had undesirable toxic reactions.

Edward Jenner’s innovations in preventing smallpox, begun in 1796, quickly made the practice of vaccination widespread. His method underwent medical and technological changes over the next 200 years, and eventually resulted in the eradication of smallpox.

Jenner performing his first vaccination on a boy of 8 Public Domain

Edward Jenner died in 1823—6 years after Jane Austen. Although there is no historical evidence that Jane was vaccinated, due to Jenner’s work, she and her family lived in a world far less at risk from smallpox death than previous generations. In the last decade of Jenner’s life, the London Bills of Mortality documented 7,858 deaths from smallpox. While that is a significant number, it is down from 18,447 deaths in the last decade before Jenner gave the world the gift of vaccination.

Memorial to Jenner, Gloucester Cathedral

Jenner Memorial, Gloucester Cathedral Photo: Creative Commons Andrew Rabbott

Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

Read More: Regency World

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Reader Comments:

You forgot/ignored Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who her children years before Dr Jenner even started his research. She learned the technique from her time in the Ottoman Empire (1716-1718). She wrote extensively about the procedure, it's success and promoted the cause in 1718.
-mekosydar, July 27, 2021

I recall that Jane's good friend Mrs Lefroy carried out smallpox vaccinations in Hampshire, having taken lessons from Jenner himself.
-Ronald Dunning, July 29, 2021

Dear Mekosydar and Ronald, Thank you both so much for your very apt comments on my blog! Indeed, I wish I had included both bits of information in my article--such an interesting and time-appropriate topic, a great deal more could be done on it.
-Donna Fletcher Crow, August 16, 2021

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