L Thurston, G Williams
Journal Issue: 
Volume 45: Issue 2: 2015


Edward Jenner is recognised today as the father of vaccination but, as this paper explores, he was not the only Gloucestershire doctor to be linked to this discovery. John Fewster, a local surgeon and apothecary, is also said to have experimented with vaccination, many years before Jenner. This claim is made in a letter addressed to John Coakley Lettsom, written by John Player, a Quaker farmer. Player describes in detail Fewster’s realisation that cowpox could be used to protect against smallpox. This letter is frequently cited but has not previously been subjected to critical analysis. We have identified several inconsistencies, including conflicting dates and a possible ulterior motive in that Player’s son was to marry Fewster’s daughter. We think it unlikely that Player, a devout Quaker, would have consciously fabricated evidence, but argue that the discrepancies in his account undermine the assumption that Fewster carried out vaccination experiments prior to Jenner. We also explore the assertion that Fewster presented a paper in 1765 on the subject of cowpox and its protective effect over smallpox. We conclude that, although there is no doubt that Fewster did pre-empt Jenner’s discovery of vaccination, he did not realise the significance or importance of this momentous medical advance.