Was Jane Austen vaccinated against smallpox? I expected that the answer to this question was a simple internet search away. I was wrong. After extensive searching, I am answerless. I located no mention of her ever having received either the smallpox variolation or vaccination procedures online. Although many of her illnesses were documented, there are no reports of her having contracted smallpox, so either she was never exposed, or she was immune. Let’s take a look together at a few of the possibilities.
Born in 1775, Austen’s childhood years were in a time when inoculation against smallpox through a procedure called variolation had been practiced in England for decades, especially among the royals and elite in society. Variolation involved infecting a person with a small dose of live smallpox, typically the least virulent of the two known strains, and isolating the person while the disease ran its course. The exposure was introduced via a small scratch between the thumb and forefinger, a far less significant means of exposure to the dreaded disease than the airborne one that caused epidemics. There were some fatalities from variolation, but the odds of suffering simply a mild case and hence, surviving it were high. It was considered a better option than taking your chances during a smallpox outbreak.
John Fewster, a Gloucestershire surgeon, realized that farmers and dairymaids who had been diagnosed with a case of cowpox prior to being variolated appeared to be were immune, and did not become ill following the variolation procedure. Fewster apparently didn’t realize the significance of his observation but happened to mention it at a meeting of the local medical society. Edward Jenner, another doctor from Gloucestershire, was a member of that society and recognized the medical potential of this fact. A similar observation was made by the British Army around 1790 that the incidence of smallpox was lower among the cavalry than the infantry troops. The effect of horsepox in granting immunity was on par with that of cowpox.
Is it possible that Jane have acquired natural immunity in her youth? Consider that Austen lived with her parents at the Steventon Rectory until she was 25 years old. In order to make ends meet, the Austens farmed, with cows counted among their livestock. In an interview between Lucy Worsley and Debbie Charlton, an archeologist studying the site where the Steventon Rectory used to stand, Charlton infers that it is highly likely that in the absence of dairymaids, Jane likely had to milk the cows herself. We can’t rule out Austen’s exposure to cowpox as a farmer’s daughter helping out around the farm.
Edward Jenner, the Gloucestershire doctor conducted an experiment in 1796 that proved that infection from cowpox provided immunity to smallpox. Jenner tirelessly promoted his cowpox solution as a safer option than variolation. He famously did not charge money for teaching the method to people but gave the information out freely. People who he trained in the procedure, or those who learned how to perform the simple procedure from his printed materials often set up vaccination clinics. To distinguish the difference between inoculation with the smallpox virus and the new cowpox method, a new word was coined. Vaccine. From the Latin vaccinus, which literally means, “pertaining to cows, from cows.”
One of the persons who took up the vaccination effort was Jane Austen’s friend and mentor Anne Brydges Lefroy, referred to as Madam Lefroy. Shortly after Edward Jenner developed the cowpox vaccine for smallpox, Madam Lefroy obtained the instructions and coordinated with her neighbors during the winter months to offer a program of vaccinating people. In a letter she wrote in 1803, she said:
I am now again very busy in Cowpox inoculation as the Smallpox is in many of the Villages around us the common people are all now eager to be secured from infection. Mr Bramston inoculated 140 in one day & numbers of those whom I inoculated last year & the year before have been employed in attending their neighbours who have the Smallpox & not one has had the least symptom of having taken the infection.
There is no surviving information as to whether Jane ever took part in her friend’s vaccination program, but there were trips to the neighborhood of Manydown in the winter months of 1801 and 1802 that would have coincided with Lefroy’s efforts. It would seem that Jane did not find the topic of smallpox to be particularly interesting, however, which we deduce from a reference mentioned by Lucy Worsley when discussing the social life of Austen while living at Sydney Place in Bath. (1801-1805) Apparently, a pamphlet on smallpox read for entertainment was not particularly diverting.
Vaccination was a hot topic during Jane’s adult life, and then just as now, there were detractors and opposition. She had had the opportunity, information, and access, should she avail herself of it. In spite of this, whether or not she was vaccinated against smallpox, or even her thoughts about the procedure remains a mystery.