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By Stewart Emmens on

Edward Jenner, His Chair… And His Hair

Stewart Emmens takes a look at the death of one of the greatest enemies of smallpox, Edward Jenner.

The future of the remaining sample strains of the smallpox virus has been the subject of much speculation recently. Discussed at this month’s World Health Assembly, the dilemma of what best to do with these outstanding stocks has raised contrasting concerns. A waste of public money and scientific resource or a defensive tool against the global terrorist threat?

Edward Jenner (1749-1823), print, England, 1823. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But rather than focus on the possible death of smallpox, I’d like to take a look at the death of one of its greatest enemies, Edward Jenner. The English country doctor who introduced the vaccine for smallpox at the end of the 18th century, died on the 26th January 1823.

There is much Jenner-related material in our collections, but alongside objects associated with his life-saving work is a small group of objects linked to his death – and burial.

Padded wooden chair in which Dr. Edward Jenner died, British, 1770-1823. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This rather garish padded affair, with wheels, is the chair that he died in. The cause of death being recorded as apoplexy – what we would now refer to as a stroke. Physically incapacitated, he had finally succumbed aged 73, seated in his country house in Gloucestershire.

Now a museum, the site is almost as famed for its alleged ‘spectral events’ than its connections with the pioneering doctor.

Sample of Edward Jenner’s hair, England, 1823

These hair clippings were taken from Jenner’s head shortly after his death. This was quite a common practice, with the hair often being integrated into brooches and other ornate mourning jewellery. We actually have several samples, which does raise concerns about the dignity of his natural coiffure at the time of internment.

Piece of cloth taken from the coffin of Edward Jenner

Finally, and most curiously, is this tiny fragment of black cloth, held within a glass topped container. Inside, a hand-written note proclaims it is “A piece of cloth taken from Dr. Jenner’s coffin, March 23rd 1854”.

This date is more than three decades after Jenner’s death, but it is the day before the burial of his son Robert. It can only be assumed that somebody couldn’t resist gathering a souvenir when re-visiting the Jenner family vault.