James Phipps: 1st to Receive Smallpox Vaccination

Numerous sources refer to James Phipps (1788-1853) as the first person to be vaccinated for smallpox. He is said to have been born in 1788 in Berkeley Parish in Gloucestershire, England. His father was a poor man who worked as a gardener for scientist and physician Edward Jenner.

Jenner took cowpox in 1796 from a pustule on the arm of a young girl, Sarah Neimes, and intentionally transferred it to the arm of James Phipps when he was only about 8 years old. James was used as a human guinea pig. Jenner appears to have been acting on a hunch based on local folklore.

Jenner claimed, however, that the symptoms suffered by James Phipps were only slight. Three days later, according to Jenner, Phipps was well. Jenner later injected James Phipps with smallpox matter taken from a pustule, but he did not contract the disease.

James Phipps is said to have then been re-injected with smallpox by Jenner –  repeatedly – for the next 20 years. After the 20th such injection, he contracted tuberculosis, from which he recovered. He died in 1853.

Wikipedia notes that Jenner’s experimentation on the young James Phipps was “untenable” in the context of today’s concepts of medical ethics. That would be  an extreme understatement.

An old engraving shows Jenner applying the cowpox to the very young and frightened Phipps, while the boy is being held, evidently against his will. (Another version, probably later, shows Jenner administering the cowpox to a very calm James, while a nurse gently holds his arm.) The experiment was, however, described as a “milestone” in medical science.


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