Edward Jenner pioneered vaccination. Will his museum survive a pandemic?

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Edward Jenner pioneered vaccination. Will his museum survive a pandemic?
Owen Gower, the museum manager at Dr. Edward Jenner's House, Museum and Garden in Berkeley, England, March 9, 2021. The site where Jenner first inoculated people against smallpox has struggled in the coronavirus lockdowns, one of hundreds of museums in Britain teetering amid the closures. Mary Turner/The New York Times.

by Megan Specia

BERKELEY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It has been called the birthplace of modern vaccination.

More than 220 years ago, the residents of an English village lined up outside a small wooden hut to have their arms scratched with a lancet as they were given the first vaccine for smallpox.

The pioneering local doctor administering the vaccine, Edward Jenner, called the modest building in his garden the “Temple of Vaccinia,” and from this place grew a public health movement that would see smallpox declared eradicated globally by 1980.

But a new scourge has left this place — where the gnarled wooden walls of Jenner’s hut still stand at a museum at the home and garden dedicated to his legacy — shuttered to the public, its future on shaky ground. Even as Jenner’s work was cited time and again as the world raced toward a coronavirus vaccine, the museum at his former home has struggled to survive.

“I think the issue has been an underfunding of museums for many, many years in this country,” said Owen Gower, manager of Dr. Jenner’s House, Museum and Garden. “COVID has really shone a light on those problems, as it has with so many different issues.”

The museum is among scores of independent cultural heritage sites across Britain that have teetered on this brink since last year as one of their main sources of income — visitors — were cut off when pandemic restrictions shut their doors.

Some were able to open for a few months in the summer and autumn, but others, like Dr. Jenner’s House, were unable to put necessary measures in place in tight spaces with limited budgets and remained closed.

A flip through the museum’s guest book reveals its final handwritten notes from February 2020. One of the last names is accompanied by what has become, in the interim, an all-too-familiar drawing of a virus’s spiked sphere, this one scrawled by a child’s hand.

Even before the pandemic, Jenner’s museum had struggled to find financial stability. Gower is the only full-time employee; a few part-time staff members and dozens of volunteers keep the museum running.

“It has always been a hard sell,” Gower said of the small museum, tucked up a quiet lane, far from Britain’s well-beaten tourist track, in the sleepy country town of Berkeley.

Most of its visitors arrive from the surrounding area, though there are the occasional medical buffs who make the trek from farther afield, to the town on the River Severn just north of Bristol.

The building was converted into a museum in the 1980s after centuries as a private home. Its handful of rooms are filled with Jenner’s personal belongings. Folding spectacles, a lock of his hair, lancets and medical drawings crowd small glass viewing cases, while the displays upstairs memorialize the march toward the eradication of smallpox.

On a recent morning this month, Gower walked the grounds of the museum, reflecting on how the pandemic has given him a new personal appreciation for the site, as he sees parallels with the current vaccination campaign.

“Some people would have been very excited, hopeful; some people probably a bit more nervous,” he said of those who visited Jenner beginning in the 1790s for a scratch from his the lancet, a small medical blade.

Jenner’s vaccine built upon a technique called variolation that was practiced in Africa and Asia for centuries, and his approach also leaned on local knowledge. His vaccine used samples of the milder disease cowpox, as it was long known in his rural community that women who were exposed to that illness in dairies were immune to smallpox.

The museum managed to scrape through 2020, even with its doors shut, thanks in part to a large fundraising push at the start of the pandemic.

The British government this month announced a boost of 300 million pounds, or $412 million, to its Culture Recovery Fund in its annual budget, and there are other emergency grants in place to provide critical backstops.

Most available funding is focused on immediate relief, however, rather than long-term planning, and the fundraiser last year that saved the Jenner museum from imminent closure left it ineligible for most programs.

But with the coronavirus vaccine rollout in Britain going smoothly and a drop in new infections making way for a summer of freedom after a winter of lockdown, Gower hopes that he will soon be welcoming back the museum’s first visitors in more than a year, just as the Albertine roses that crawl up the building’s facade are beginning to bloom.

There are some 2,500 independent museums and cultural heritage sites dotted across England, often full of niche collections like the one in Dr. Jenner’s House. Over the past year, the whole sector has been kept afloat by emergency funding, said Emma Chaplin, director of the Association of Independent Museums.

“A lot of museums have spent their reserves over the last year when the focus had obviously been on survival,” Chaplin said. But having weathered the immediate storm of the pandemic, the sites need to be supported through this year and likely next year to survive, she added.

“It’s going to be a lot of work to get reopening again,” she said.

In the meantime, some of these cultural sites have followed Jenner’s lead. With their typical visits halted, they have become vaccination hubs instead, like the Black Country Living Museum in the West Midlands, the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds, and Salisbury Cathedral.

When the Jenner museum reopens, Gower hopes to update the exhibits to incorporate newly relevant themes emerging in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Telling the broader story of vaccination globally and highlighting the many contributors to the lifesaving medicine are things Gower believes the museum’s namesake would have endorsed.

“We’re very keen to move away from this idea of there being one hero in the story of vaccination,” Gower said, noting that Jenner’s breakthrough “was on the back of other people’s work.”

Gower believes Jenner’s focus on collaborative work — 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 scramble for limited vaccine supplies and anti-vaccine campaigns take root, the story behind how we got here is more important than ever.

“He did remarkable things, and the number of lives saved and changed as a result of vaccination — it all started here,” Gower said. “But I think it’s also the idea that it’s not just something of the past; it’s something that is ongoing.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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