IN THE nave of Gloucester Cathedral is a statue of the Gloucestershire physician and scientist Edward Jenner. Almost two centuries ago, he published a pamphlet on his belief that vaccination could eradicate the disease of small pox. His story is a reminder of scientific persistence and patience, but also provides a different perspective on science, faith, and the natural world from some of the narratives used by politicians and the media in the response to Covid.
During his apprenticeship as a surgeon, the teenage Jenner overheard a milkmaid repeat a popular belief that she could not have smallpox because she had a cowpox sore on her hand from milking. Although such stories were dismissed as nonsense by many doctors, over the next 30 years Jenner studied the claim, and, in 1796, he took material from a cowpox pustule on the hand of Sarah Nelmes and vaccinated eight-year-old James Phipps, who was rendered immune to smallpox. Jenner’s paper, “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae”, became the foundation that would lead to a world free of the disease.
Jenner did not speak of this as a battle or crusade against a malevolent natural enemy. He was zealous for truth and for the relief of human suffering, and he also had a strong love of nature — seeing it as creation informed by his Christian faith. One commentator points out that Jenner’s “fondness for natural history” was linked to “marked reverence for nature’s great Architect”. Jenner observed animal habits and also collected fossils.
This was a constant interest throughout his life. Sir Joseph Banks employed him to arrange the valuable specimens, zoological and otherwise, gathered by Captain Cook during his first voyage of discovery, which ended in 1771. In 1823, Jenner presented a paper to the Royal Society on the migration of birds. This pursuit of truth, goodness, and reverence for the Creator, coupled with his unselfish desire to prevent or relieve human suffering, framed Jenner’s view of science.
In a letter to a friend, written when he felt that he had sufficient evidence for the genuineness of his discovery, Jenner says: “While the vaccine discovery was progressive, the joy I felt at the prospect before me of being the instrument destined to take away from the world one of its greatest calamities . . . was often so excessive, that in pursuing my favourite subject among the meadows, I have sometimes found myself in a kind of reverie. It is pleasant to me to recollect that these reflections always ended in devout acknowledgements to that Being from whom this and all other mercies flow.”
His respect for science and the natural world came from his sense that both were gifts from God. His faith also energised his practice in providing his vaccine for the poor in his own home.
THE current pandemic has been dominated in public discourse by very different language. As Dr Franziska Kohlt has shown, politicians and some church leaders have used narratives of warfare with the evil virus. In the search for a vaccine, and our fervent action against illness and death, it can be easy to see the natural world as something to be conquered and subjugated, and science as the only source of salvation.
To characterise the virus as evil might understandably express the anger and emotional pressure of a world in crisis, and try to frame the scale of the challenge ahead. This can, however, lead to an arrogant sense of human mastery of nature. To see the science and technology of human discovery as being in a battle with nature raises human beings to the position of wanting to be the victors over nature. This is a dangerous view, which has often contributed to our abuse of the environment.
But, in Jenner, we see a very different view of the natural world. Covid is ultimately a reminder of our vulnerability in the natural world. The success of the vaccine is a further reminder that science is a gift from God for us to use wisely for the good of all, of whatever nation or economic power.
THE statue of Jenner in Gloucester Cathedral is an affirmation of the God-given vocation of a scientist to rejoice in the beauty of the physical creation and to bring healing to its brokenness.
As the late Bishop Michael Perham would point out, at the heart of liturgy are affirmation, rejoicing, and healing. My question is how, in our liturgy, we embed the lessons of the pandemic and the lessons of history in seeing science as a gift of God.
During the pandemic, we have learnt to give thanks and pray for health workers and vaccine scientists. Perhaps this could extend to praying regularly for science teachers, students studying science at school or university, engineers, and those working in technology. We could also make space for testimony from professional scientists about how they see their work as vocation.
We should also ask how our hymns and songs, praise and lament, can use the insights of science to enhance our sense of a God who is both Creator and Redeemer.
The Revd Professor David Wilkinson is Principal of St John’s College, Durham University, and project leader of Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science. www.eclasproject.org
This is an edited extract from the Michael Perham University and Cathedral Lecture that Professor Wilkinson gave on 17 May. It was organised by the University of Gloucestershire and Gloucester Cathedral. Watch the lecture here.