Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Category: Animals

Jenner, Jesty, Mary Wortley Montagu and Blossom

“ I have had my fifth Covid jab as I am immunocompromised,” read a text from my friend, “they can call me whatever they want as long as I am jabbed, jabbed, jabbed.” “ I had pneumonia with my flu jab last autumn,” I countered, but I was outclassed. “Doesn’t cut the mustard,” came the reply “fifth Covid trumps pneumonia.” My friend and I embrace our vaccinations; we belong to the fortunate generation who until recently took for granted the protection afforded to us throughout our lives by vaccines. I have no memory of receiving my smallpox, polio, and diphtheria inoculations but I remember  the sepia photograph on my grandparents’ bedroom wall of a seven-year-old boy in a sailor suit, their son who had died of diphtheria,  and the  two slightly older children in my primary school who wore callipers having contracted polio. Neither disease ever posed a threat to me. In our teenage years when my school friends and I received our BCG vaccinations we gave little thought to  tuberculosis but  speculated enthusiastically on whether our crocodiling from school to the clinic and back might involve missing maths or Latin. Personally, I hoped to miss games, but this was not a popular view. In adulthood  vaccinations  ensured my safety on holidays: typhoid, hepatitis and cholera became routine, immunisation against yellow fever spoke of exotic destinations.

The Covid pandemic  shook my complacency breaching the defences of my protected, inoculated western world, and I was afraid. When in December 2020 Margaret Keenan received the first licensed vaccine against Covid, developed by Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, I rejoiced. On a bitterly cold day in February 2021, I joined other exultant, albeit masked and socially distanced, individuals at Shepton  Mallet Social Services Hub where we thanked effusively the shivering but cheerful volunteers who told us where to park and those who managed the queue in the freezing hall with its doors and windows flung wide, reserving our most effusive thanks of all for those who administered our jabs.

Later, as the third lockdown passed, I made newly appreciative and grateful visits to early vaccinators.

A weathered slab beside the altar in the church of St. Mary the Virgin, Berkeley marks the grave of Edward Jenner along with his parents, wife, and son.

Grave of Edward Jenner

Having  noticed the immunity of milkmaids from smallpox, and linked this to their exposure to cowpox, which he believed protected them, in 1796 Jenner injected James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, with pus scraped from the blisters of a milkmaid  who had contracted cowpox from a cow called Blossom. Six weeks later when he inoculated the boy with smallpox there were no ill effects. Jenner set up a hut in his garden, the Temple of Vaccinia,  offering free vaccinations to the poor.

The Temple of Vaccinia

Jenner’s discovery however was not universally welcomed: sections of the clergy  held it ungodly and unnatural to inoculate people with material from a diseased animal, others feared the effects. The cartoonist Gillray, who pictured people growing cows’ heads after having the vaccine, satirised the credulity of extreme opponents. When vaccination with the cowpox became compulsory in 1853 there were protest marches and calls for freedom of choice. It was not until 1980 that the World Health Organisation was able to declare that “smallpox is dead,” and today specimens remain in only two laboratories in the USA and Siberia for research purposes, held, it is said, with greater security than the nuclear bomb. An exhibition in Jenner’s house, next door to the church,  traces the horrible effects of smallpox and the history of the vaccine.

But Jenner was not  the first to inoculate with cowpox. In the graveyard of St. Nicholas in Worth Maltravers I visited the recently restored grave of Benjamin Jesty. Twenty-two years before Jenner, during  the smallpox epidemic in 1774, the Dorset farmer inoculated his wife and two children with a darning needle coated in pus drawn from lesions on an infected cow . Although his vaccine was widely used by country doctors and farmers,  Jesty  too had met with ridicule and hostility not least from  members of the medical establishment. He wrote his own epitaph  describing himself as “the first person that introduced the cowpox by inoculation.” His wife, fittingly commemorated in a grave alongside him, added the more cautious and modest “known” in parenthesis.

Grave of Benjamin Jesty, the first person (known) that introduced the cowpox by inoculation
Jesty’s wife, Elizabeth, first person (known) that received the cowpox by inoculation
Graves of the Jestys

 Before Jesty or Jenner the exotic Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had brought variolation,  inoculation with pus taken from someone with smallpox itself to produce a mild infection and then immunity in the recipient, to Europe in 1721. The practice was widespread in Africa and Asia, and after observing it in Constantinople where her husband was ambassador, she had her own children inoculated. Later she encouraged trials on Newgate prisoners: faced with execution they were offered the alternative of receiving the inoculation and their freedom if they survived. Happily, all survived. The practice was also trialled on orphans. Criticism of Montagu focused not on the dubious morality of these trials but on fears of the results  and a certain prejudice against oriental medicine. Controversial though the process was  the Straffords at Wentworth Castle  had their children treated. When their  son  inherited the estate he dedicated the Sun Monument, an obelisk  in the gardens of Wentworth, to Montagu. She is buried in the vault of Grosvenor Chapel  in London.

And Blossom? Jenner kept her hide and horns when she died. Today her hide hangs proudly in the library at  St. George’s Hospital Medical School where Jenner did his medical training, but they admit that her horns are wooden copies, a letter in their archives suggesting that an impecunious relative of Jenner’s may have sold the originals to an American university in the 1930s.

Blossom’s hide, St. George’s Hospital Medical School

The museum at Jenner’s House has in its possession no less than seven horns: one magnificent specimen lying on the desk in Jenner’s study bears a silver inscription attesting proudly that  Jenner himself polished it and gave it  as a gift; two others are on display in a glass case.

A horn on the desk in Jenner’s study, inscribed by Jenner
A pair of horns in a glass case in the Jenner museum may be those of Blossom

Rival claimants to the “true horns” include the George Marshall Medical Museum in Worcester which owns a pair; the Thackery Museum in Leeds has another two; the Science museum has one and so does the Old Operating Theatre. But Blossom’s finest memorial, and that of Jenner, Jesty and Montagu, is the protection bestowed on us  with every inoculation we receive.

Thank you, Blossom

Doorkins Magnificat

Southwark is my favourite Cathedral, not least for the warmth of the welcome always extended by the volunteer guides. It was one of them who first introduced me to Doorkins Magnificat. Leading the way to the Bishop’s Chair he indicated a tabby cat comfortably asleep on the cushion. “I always have to check on her” he whispered, “the first thing my wife asks me when I get home is ‘how was Doorkins today?’” Doorkins, he explained, first appeared at the south-west door of the cathedral in 2008. Named by one of the vergers, she was timid at first but after a few weeks of being fed decided to make the cathedral her home, sleeping there by day and prowling Borough market by night. “At Christmas,” my guide continued, “she likes to sleep in the straw around the nativity scene.”

 Doorkins lived at the cathedral for eleven years and if the vergers and clergy  cast their bread upon the waters in offering her hospitality and sanctuary, they were more than repaid. For Doorkins not only brought joy to her carers and visitors, but she also developed her own successful line of merchandise in the gift shop, with cards, mugs, mouse mats, fridge magnets and her own book. She was a philanthropist too, donating the food and treats which her many admirers left, and which far exceeded her own needs, to Catcuddles, a cat rescue organisation pairing unwanted cats with loving homes.

Towards the end of 2019, as Doorkins grew old, suffering with kidney problems, failing sight and hearing, she retired to the home of  Paul Timms, the head verger, where almost a year later she died peacefully in his arms .

Meanwhile the cathedral had been seeking another cat to keep its mouse population under control and on 30 September 2020, the very day that Doorkins died, a stray from Catcuddles arrived at Southwark. He was called after Dr. Johnson’s cat, Hodge, and in a short video Paul Timms recounts the story of how when Boswell remarked that Hodge was a fine cat, Johnson responded “yes, sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this” but seeing Hodge’s reproachful look, he added hastily “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

A month after her death  the clergy and vergers held  a Thanksgiving service  for Doorkins in the cathedral. It was live streamed because the pandemic lockdown meant that  only thirty people were able to attend. A few voices were raised in criticism that a service should be held for a cat mid pandemic. The Dean, Andrew Nunn, responded gently  in his eulogy, saying, “She arrived, she entered, and we made her welcome. People concluded that if this little cat is welcome, maybe I am too,” and he continued modestly “She did more to bring people to this place than I will ever do.”

Last time I visited Southwark I met Hodge proudly patrolling the cathedral aisles, and he is, like his  namesake, a very fine cat indeed. And in the churchyard  beneath a wall separating the cathedral garden from Borough market I found Doorkins in her final resting place.

Southwark will always be Doorkins’ Cathedral but Hodge, and the rest of us, are very welcome.

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