BERKELEY, England – It has been named the birthplace of modern day vaccination.
More than 220 years ago, when they received the first vaccine against smallpox, people in an English village stood in front of a small wooden hut to have their arms scratched with a lancet.
The pioneering local doctor who administered the vaccine, Edward Jenner, called the humble building in his garden the “Temple of Vaccinia,” and it was from there that a public health movement developed that declared smallpox eradicated worldwide in 1980 .
But a new scourge has left this place – where the gnarled wooden walls of Dr. Jenner’s hut still stands in a house and garden museum dedicated to his legacy – and his future closed to the public on shaky ground. Although Dr. Jenner’s work has been cited repeatedly as the world headed for a coronavirus vaccine, the museum struggled to survive in its former home.
“I think the problem has been museum underfunding in this country for many, many years,” said Owen Gower, the manager of Dr. Jenner’s house, museum and garden. “Covid has really shed light on these issues, as it has with so many different problems.”
The museum is among the many independent cultural heritage sites across the UK to stand on this fringe since last year, as one of their main sources of income – visitors – was cut off when pandemic restrictions closed their doors.
Some could open for a few months in the summer and fall, others, like Dr. Jenner’s house, unable to take necessary action in a tight space with limited budgets, remained closed.
A look in the museum’s guest book reveals the final handwritten notes from February 2020. One of the surnames is accompanied by an all-too-familiar drawing of the spiked sphere of a virus, scribbled by a child’s hand.
Even before the pandemic, Dr. Jenners Museum struggling to find financial stability. Mr. Gower is the only full-time employee; A few part-time workers and dozens of volunteers keep the museum going.
“It’s always been a tough sell,” said Gower of the small museum in the sleepy country town of Berkeley, which is on a quiet lane off the beaten track in the UK.
Most visitors are local, although there are occasional medical fans who make their way from further afield into town on the River Severn north of Bristol.
The building was converted into a museum as a private home in the 1980s after centuries. The handful of rooms are filled with Mr. Jenner’s personal effects. Folding glasses, a strand of hair, lancets and medical drawings crowd into small glass showcases, while the displays on the upper floor are reminiscent of the march to eradicate smallpox.
One recent morning this month, Mr Gower was walking around the museum grounds, pondering how the pandemic has given him a new personal appreciation for the place as he sees parallels with the current vaccination campaign.
March 29, 2021, 6:46 p.m. ET
“Some people would have been very excited, hopeful, others probably a little more nervous,” he said of those who met Dr. Jenner from the 1790s onwards to scratch his lancet, a small medical blade.
Dr. Jenner’s vaccine is based on a technique called variolation, which has been practiced in Africa and Asia for centuries, and his approach was also based on local knowledge. His vaccine used samples of the milder disease, cowpox – as it had long been known in his rural community that women exposed to the disease in dairies were immune to smallpox.
The museum managed to scratch by 2020 even with the doors closed, thanks in part to a huge fundraiser at the start of the pandemic.
The UK government this month announced an increase in its Culture Restoration Fund by £ 300 million, or $ 412 million in its annual budget, and there are more immediate grants to provide critical backstops.
Most funding available, however, focuses on immediate aid rather than long-term planning, and last year’s fundraiser that saved the Jenner Museum from imminent closure made it out of the question for most programs.
With the coronavirus vaccine rollout in the UK going smoothly and the number of new infections after a winter of lockdown giving way to a summer of freedom, Mr Gower hopes he’ll soon be welcoming the first visitors to the museum again as the Albertine roses that the Crawl up the facade of the building, begin to bloom.
There are around 2,500 independent museums and heritage sites across England, often full of niche collections like the one in Dr. Jenner’s house. Last year, emergency funding kept the entire sector afloat, said Emma Chaplin, director of the Association of Independent Museums.
“Many museums spent their reserves last year when the focus was obviously on survival,” said Ms. Chaplin. But after weathering the immediate pandemic storm, the sites will need support this year and likely next year to survive, she added.
As the Jenner Museum reopens, Mr Gower is hoping to update the exhibits to include new relevant topics as the coronavirus pandemic wakes up. Mr Gower believes the museum’s namesake would have endorsed this if he had told the fuller history of vaccination around the world and highlighted the many contributions to life-saving medicine.
“We are very keen to move away from the idea that there is a hero in the history of vaccination,” said Gower, noting that Dr. Jenner’s breakthrough “was based on the work of other people”.
Mr. Gower believes that Dr. Jenner’s focus on collaboration – he never patented his vaccine, offered it for free, and taught other doctors how to do the procedure – also offers lessons for the current age. And as nations look for limited vaccine supplies and anti-vaccine campaigns take hold, the story of how we got here is more important than ever.
“He’s done remarkable things – and the number of lives saved and changed by vaccinations – it all started here,” Gower said. “But I think it’s also the idea that not only is it a thing of the past, but it also lasts.”