I had the last word yesterday at Cumbria County Council - the last item on the agenda was the slot for speeches by county councillors. I used it to make a speech calling for the statue of the founder of modern vaccination, Edward Jenner, which was originally unveiled in Trafalgar Square by Prince Albert, to be put back there.
His statue was moved to a less prominent position in Kensington Gardens after Prince Albert died as a result of pressure from an unholy alliance between the anti-vaxxers of the day and elements of the military who as the British Medical Journal put it at the time, thought that Trafalgar Square should be reserved for those who took the lives of their fellow men and objected to Edward Jenner being there because he had only saved lives.
This was the text of my speech.
Speech to Full Council 15th April 2021
"Mr Chairman, members, officers and any members of the public still watching.
Councillors will probably be relieved to learn that although I have not changed my view that the A595 urgently needs to be improved, that will be my one mention of that road today.
I want to talk about an issue which links the current pandemic, in particular the vaccination programme which is so vital to our recovery, the fact that so called “cancel culture” is not as new as we may think, and the righting of a wrong against the memory of a great man of science and medicine whose work two centuries ago laid the foundations for the current fight against Coronavirus.
I am, and I hope and presume most members of this council are, among the majority of residents of Cumbria who have had one or more doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine. As of Wednesday more than 3.46 million people in our region had received a first dose of an approved vaccine and more than 925 thousand a second dose. All of the top nine categories of vulnerable people were offered a vaccination by Monday of this week, a couple of days ahead of the promised target.
Although the dates suggest that most of the heavy lifting in ending Britain’s second wave of COVID came from the lockdown which is gradually now ending, academic studies have suggested that the vaccination programme has already saved ten thousand lives and it will undoubtedly save many more – it is also vital to our route out of lockdown.
To have developed a vaccine so quickly against a virus which nobody in Britain had heard of fifteen months ago and use it to protect so many millions of people is an incredible achievement for the scientists of all countries who have been involved and all the NHS staff and everyone else who has contributed to the programme
A phrase often wrongly attributed to Shakespeare or Newton, and Newton did use it but it actually goes back to St. Bernard of Chartres in the 12th Century, is that those who achieve great things often stood on the shoulders of giants. The first set of shoulders which those who have brought off the incredible vaccination programme were standing on were those of an 18th century English doctor called Edward Jenner.
Edward Jenner was not the first person to invent any form of vaccination – an earlier procedure against smallpox called variolation goes back to fifteenth-century China. This involved injecting dead smallpox residue into the body – it did provide some protection but at a very heavy price: it carried a 2% risk of killing the person vaccinated and also a risk that the person injected could become a carrier of smallpox.
Jenner was however the first person to produce a safe and effective vaccine – he scientifically tested the popular theory that people who had been exposed to a similar mild disease, cowpox did not get smallpox, proved that it was based in fact, and devised a successful vaccination procedure for smallpox based on injecting dead cowpox residue. This was effective, carried a vastly lower risk of death – about one in half a million – and could not make the person injected into a carrier.
Jenner’s vaccination faced ridicule and opposition from the equivalents in his age of today’s Anti-Vaxxers – but it worked, it was gradually increasingly adopted throughout the world, and it eventually led to the complete eradication of smallpox by 1980. It is estimated that Edward Jenner’s vaccination saved 300 million lives – which means that he probably saved more human lives than anyone else in history.
A bronze statue to Edward Jenner was originally unveiled in Trafalgar Square by Prince Albert on 17th May 1858. This was opposed by the anti-vaxxers of the time and also by some military men because at that time Trafalgar Square was reserved for memorials for military figures. That latter tradition was, of course, abandoned some time ago.
As I have said, the practices of cancel culture such as attacks on statues are not limited to our own century, and opponents of vaccination made several attempts to have the statue taken down. While Prince Albert lived the government rightly stood firm against this, but after Albert died the opponents managed in 1862 to get the statue moved to a less prominent position in Kensington Gardens.
Mr Chairman, this is the year to correct that disgraceful injustice to a truly great man and by correcting it, make the point of how much we owe to those who have worked in medicine and by the use of vaccination and other techniques protected us from the scourge of disease. The idea of reserving Trafalgar square for military memorials has long been abandoned and no longer applies.
Our generation has particular cause to be grateful to Edward Jenner because as the father of modern scientific vaccination he started the process which at this very moment is not just saving so many people from death and illness but also paving the way to the end of lockdown and giving us our lives back.
It is time to put Edward Jenner’s memorial back in Trafalgar Square.
I am talking to colleagues about the possibility of a national petition to call for this and I hope that if and when that petition is put forward that everyone listening will be able to support it.
Thank you for listening to me and, Mr Chairman, for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to a great man who saved hundreds of millions of lives and deserves to be far better remembered."