Benjamin Jesty - Dorset farmer who vaccinated humans against smallpox 20 years prior to the experiments of Edward Jenner

To the Memory
- of -
Benjn Jesty of Downshay
who departed this Life
April 16th 1816
aged 79 years

He was born at Yetminster in this
County, and was an upright honest
Man, particularly noted for having
been the first Person (known) that
introduced the Cow Pox
by Inoculation, and who from
his great strength of mind made the
Experiment from the Cow on
his Wife and two Sons in the Year 1774

- epitaph on Jesty's tombstone                                        


Last weekend, while taking a break in Dorset, I happened upon a tiny hamlet called Worth Matravers. Being a lover of old graveyards, tomb stones and the like, I ventured into the village church. A pamphlet in the church doorway informed me that the graves of Benjamin Jesty and his wife Elizabeth lay side by side under an old yew tree in the cemetary.

"So what?", you may ask, but it turns out that it was Jesty and not Edward Jenner, who performed the first documented successful inocculation against smallpox using the cowpox virus. Sadly, instead of being hailed a national hero, he was ridiculed, scorned and was on the verge of being arrested for deliberately causing harm to his wife (who reacted badly to the inoculation of cow pox and almost died). It was to be another 20 years before Dr Edward Jenner completed his research and released the smallpox vaccine on the world.

Jesty, born in 1736, was a well respected farmer living with his wife and children at Upbury Farm in Yetminster, Dorset. Like many people of that era, he was well aware that people who worked with cattle seemed to be insusceptible to smallpox, and the link to having contracted the less serious cowpox, whilst being an old wives' tale, was nevetheless assumed by many to be true. Benjamin himself had had the disease as a young man, and discussions with two of his dairy maids strengthened his belief, because they also had never caught smallpox despite their having nursed relatives with the disease.

In 1774, smallpox was rife, and Benjamin feared for the lives of his young family. Asking around, he discovered there was an outbreak of cowpox on a farm a couple of miles away, and he and his family walked there to perform the experiment. He stuck a stocking needle into a cowpox lesion on the udder of a cow, and then into the arm of his wife. He repeated this on two of his children, but decided that the third child, still a baby, was too young. The two children quickly recovered from their cowpox infections, but his wife, who was pregnant at the time, became very seriously ill and close to death. Fortunately she eventually recovered, but the near disaster brought unwelcomed attention from many members of the clergy, doctors and farmers throughout Dorset, and is one reason why the event can be found in the local record books. Such was the disgust of local people that Jesty had put his family at such great risk that they openly derided him and pelted him with produce when he attended market.

In 1797, the Jestys moved to Downsay Manor near Worth Matravers. Perhaps the local people there were less afraid to try something new than his previous neighbours, but there are records that he openly inoculated at least a few villagers with cowpox.

It is unknown whether Edward Jenner had ever heard of Jetsy's inoculations, although he was known to be friends with doctors living in Dorset, so it is possible that he may have heard an account of the act. Jesty was a simple farmer and wouldn't have known how to write a scientific paper, and his only concern was to protect his family and loved ones, and to carry out good works within his own community. Jenner, on the other hand, had the benefit of influential friends, government grants and a medical background, and was thus able to promote his vaccine to the scientific community at large.

Word of Jesty's work did reach the House of Commons via George Pearson, and later by local Rector, Andrew Bell, but was largely ignored, partly due to the fact that Jesty himself had not submitted it. Bell was not deterred and continued to promote Jesty, and in 1805 Jesty accepted an invitation to attend the Original Vaccine Pock Institute in London, accompanied by his eldest son, Robert. At the meeting Robert was inoculated with smallpox and thus proved that he was still totally immune to the disease. The Institute awarded Jesty with a pair of gold mounted lancets, a testimonial scroll, fifteen guineas expenses and an arrangement to have his portrait painted by the artist Michael W Sharp. Jenner received world wide recognition and awards in excess of £30,000.

The Jestys lived to a ripe old age, and, despite living through a number of epidemics, never succumbed to smallpox.

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