BLUE Science – isn’t time you discovered Edward Jenner?

I will be celebrating BLUE Science every third Monday of the month as part of my efforts to promote greater understanding of science – and tackle one of the great communications issues of our time, scientific illiteracy.

Each month I will feature a cameo of a scientific great, someone to engage and inspire interest in the subject of science.

It is also my effort to make up for the current lack of PG Tips playing cards in this world.

You too may have been an earnest reader and collector of such gems as ‘Scientific Greats’, ‘Trees’ and ‘Butterflies of the United Kingdom’ (well, I had a deprived childhood and these things meant a lot to me…)

Sadly, such commendable efforts are no longer with us, stopped in 1999 it seems as  result of a Dr.Beeching-like survey of tea drinkers with whom the picture cards were seemingly no longer flavour of the month.

So. Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce you to Edward Jenner.

Edward Jenner (1749-1823) is best known as the discoverer of the cure for smallpox through using cowpox as a vaccine. (Although a Dorset farmer, a Benjamin Jesty had used the same concept of infecting his wife and children with cowpox some 20 years earlier.)

Jenner takes the accolades however.

By the late 18th century 60% of Europe’s population were infected with smallpox – with a third dying and survivors horribly disfigured. (In other parts of the world the figure was even worse with some 95% of indigenous people wiped out by the disease in South America.)

Jenner used scientific process of hypothesis, observation and recording results – and confirmed his discovery that cowpox vaccine provided indefinite protection against smallpox.

In effect, he created the medical discipline what we call ‘immunology’. By 1980 the World Health Organization finally declared smallpox eradicated – just as Jenner had prophesised.

Jenner first made his name in 1787 with his ‘Observations on the Cuckoo’ which revealed that cuckoo chicks have hollows in their backs, enabling them to scoop up other rival baby birds in the nest and tip them away from their newly adopted home.

A key quality of his work was his power of observation, matched with a curiosity and voracious appetite for learning and discovery.

Worthy though his scientific work may be, it is Jenner the man I find compelling.

In his time he was one of the most famous people of his era.

Even the mighty Napoleon deferred to Jenner, when the English scientist secured the release of two English prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars. ‘Ah, Jenner. I can refuse him nothing,’ the might Bonaparte is reputed to have responded.

Fame however, had little appeal for Jenner: “As for fame, what is it? A gilded butt for ever pierced with the arrows of malignancy.” (Some things never seem to change!)

Jenner was by all accounts convivial company. You could say he had an inflated sense of fun, being a keen balloonist, a hobby through which he met his future wife; his unmanned, varnished-silk balloon landed on her father’s estate.

Jenner was also regarded as a witty raconteur, poet and violinist – as well as a smart dresser.

In the spirit of the BLUE Science campaign Edward Jenner was also an advocate of spreading the word about science. He created two clubs: the Convivo-medical Society and also the Medico-convivial Society. The two societies evidently had different emphasis.

Many of us owe our lives to Edward Jenner. He is a worthy instigator of our series of Scientific greats. What more can you find out about science?

5 things you may, or may not known about Edward Jenner

  1. He succeeded in getting Napoleon to return British prisoners of war during the aforesaid’s wars.
  2. He met his wife by accidentally landing his balloon on her father’s estate
  3. He set up 2 debating societies with different emphasis: one was called the Convivo-medical Society and the other Medico-convivial Society.
  4. He had little time for shallow celebrity. If only contemporary celebrity culture would take note: “As for fame, what is it? A gilded butt for ever pierced with the arrows of malignancy.”
  5. By the way, Edward Jenner also discovered the cure for smallpox through using cowpox as a vaccine – and became the saviour of millions of lives through his endeavours.

BLUE Science Image of the month

A new friend, who goes by the name ‘Dr. Hubris’ made a telling point when talking about how he got into science: it was through being mesmerised by a picture.

Thinking about it, I know exactly what he means. The nearest I come to being enthralled with science is my love of Geography. I remember as a teenager sitting in the kitchen of our flat which overlooked the approach to the Blackwall Tunnel begrudgingly doing my geography homework.

I become entranced however, by one of the photos in the textbook. It showed the Grand Canyon.  Instantly, I was transported several thousand miles away to this natural wonder. I pledged one day I would go there. (Which I did 30 years later) In the meantime I knuckled down and began to enjoy the study of geography and how our physical landscapes were created. All from one photo.

A Grand Inspiration

What photo or image has inspired you to want to know more about science. Let us know.

Why BLUE Science?

Our Society faces a major threat from the growth of what I ‘compound scientific illiteracy.’

A recent Ofsted report (January 2011) on science teaching in schools highlighted how at primary level since 2007, the performance of the brightest pupils aged seven to 11 has declined. It reported how children’s grasp of science was often undermined by a lack of expertise among their teachers, which ‘limited the challenge for some more able pupils’.

The syndrome ‘compound scientific illiteracy’ – where a lack of science knowledge is helping to create further ignorance – is an urgent issue where the communications industry can use its skills to tackle.

This campaign aims to encourage non-scientists to become better consumers of science, junk science and pseudo science to avoid their being commercially or politically exploited by encouraging scientists to become better communicators.

The initiative stands for Better Learning Understanding and Education of Science and unlike other initiatives seeking to achieve public understanding of science – this new campaign will work from outside of the scientific community and redefines the traditional ‘public understanding of science’ as ‘science understanding of the public’.

The BLUE Science campaign argues that some of the causes of misunderstanding of science are actually caused by the way scientists think, act and re-act. By addressing the issue as non-scientists it aims to tackle ‘bilateral scientific illiteracy’ – an ignorance created by a failure by either side of the debate to fully understand the worldview of the other. 

Each month – the third Monday – to coincide with BLUE Monday being the third Monday of January – I will be doing my bit to promote and encourage better learning, understanding and education of science.

Read the free campaign e book here 01.20.11 Why science gets the reputation it deserves  and let me know what you think.

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