Matthew Boulton as the physician who develops a cure for smallpox in MGM’s 1939 “The Story of Dr. Jenner.”
For centuries, smallpox infestations caused massive deaths and disfigurings to civilizations. First appearing in agricultural communities around 10,000 BC, the disease affected rich and poor. Everyone from Egyptian pharaohs to New World residents infected by Spanish conquistadors suffered from the dread disease, either covered in disfiguring skin lesions or dying. The British commander of North American forces fighting during the French-Indian War in the 1750s, suggested using it as biological warfare on Native Americans.
Even after a vaccine was discovered, education was required to inform people of the ugliness of the disease and the salvation of vaccination. Thanks to motion pictures, vast audiences could be educated on the value and importance of inoculation and vaccination. MGM’s 1939 Passing Parade short, “The Story of Dr. Jenner,” provided an entertaining but informative look at Dr. Jenner and his propagation of vaccination.
While smallpox destroyed three civilizations, many did survive the “speckled monster,” first with medieval remedies like herbs and cold treatments and later with inoculations. By the 1600s, inoculations proved a success method in combating the disease, with the virus from someone infected introduced into either the arm or leg through a cut.
A small boy was inoculated with the small pox virus in 1757 in Gloucester, England, developing a mild case and thus becoming immune to the disease. As an adult, now known as Dr. Edward Jenner, he remembered this event, and helped popularize vaccination which would eventually eradicate the disease. Then as now skeptics denigrated and attacked the work, and great demonstrations, first live and then later on film, would be required to educate people on the validity and importance of vaccinations.
Dr. Jenner (Matthew Boulton) decides to share his discovery with his fellow doctors.
In 1796, Jenner remembered dairy maids who suffered from cow pox seemed protected from small pox. Deciding to test his principle, he took matter from maid’s Sarah Nelms’ cow pox lesions and inoculated 8-year-old James Phipps. While Phipps suffered some mild discomfort, after a second inoculation, he achieved complete protection from small pox.
Jenner trained other physicians who then passed on their knowledge to others while enduring attack and ridicule. Vaccination for a disease did not provide life long immunity but required subsequent inoculation. The success of vaccination and inoculation required education over and over again through centuries as the practice never became compulsory except in emergency situations.
Even in the 20th century, smallpox outbreaks exploded from time to time in a variety of places and cities, requiring education to help promote vaccination. Moving pictures were employed as a useful tool to reach millions with education about Dr. Jenner and vaccination. A French company released “Vaccination Against Injuries” in 1909 while American film companies employed vaccination more as comic relief, such as Nestor’s “Love and Vaccination” in 1916.
Other doctors are skeptical of Dr. Jenner’s breakthrough.
Smallpox outbreaks exploded around the United States in 1918, leading to quarantines and vaccinations to prevent mass contagion. When Boston suffered an epidemic in the spring of 1918, its Board of Health required children under 16 to be vaccinated and to provide theaters and other entertainment venues with certificates proving their vaccinations before they could enter theaters. Towns large and small would only require vaccinations after mass epidemics hit their communities. Even motion picture studios required vaccination certificates for employees in 1926 after smallpox infected many near downtown Los Angeles.
Film companies began recognizing the importance of producing educational movies showing the benefits of vaccination and other health practices. Germany produced a short in 1921 to educate its citizens on the dread effects of the disease and the importance of vaccination. In the United States, the Committee for the Hygienic Popular Instruction produced “Smallpox, Its Dangers and How to Fight Them” in the late 1920s to fight skeptics and disinformation campaigns.
Ignorant, superstitious townspeople are likewise skeptical of Dr. Jenner.
In 1939, John Nesbitt of MGM realized how few people even knew or recognized obscure Dr. Jenner and his work and produced a 10-minute short for his Passing Parade series of film short subjects on historic events and people. The short would not only introduce Dr. Jenner to new audiences, but also demonstrate the importance of vaccinations, with the tagline “A Salute to the Simple Country Doctor Whose Discovery of Vaccination Has Saved Untold Thousands from the Ravages of Smallpox.”
The short showed helpful country doctor Dr. Jenner ministering to the needs of those suffering from smallpox in his community. Realizing how dairy maids suffering from cow pox never were infected with smallpox, Jenner decides to practice vaccination on a young boy. The towns people and later intolerant London doctors ridicule and attack him before realizing the efficacy of the practice.
Publicity ideas to help promote the film included putting out placards similar to vaccination notices from the Boards of Health luring people to theaters, and first showing it to doctors, schools, and medical professionals in order to obtain endorsements. Since schools at the time required compulsory vaccination, many would show the film as a public service. Motion Picture Daily thought it offered strong interest, and exhibitors writing in to Motion Picture Herald called it excellent and entertaining.
Correction: The young patient (Raymond Severn) is immune to smallpox.
Over the next decade, groups such as University of Minnesota, University of Michigan, New Jersey Board of Education, Virginia State Board of Education, Panel on Educational Films, and the Journal of Medical Education presented or endorsed the short for public screening in order to educate audiences. In 1954, Mutual’s Family Theatre presented a television version of Dr. Jenner’s life with Tyrone Power playing the kindly doctor.
In 2021, the world is enduring a massive pandemic not seem in more than 100 years, with over 340,000 dead in the United States and 1 million worldwide. Public service campaigns have circulated on the importance of wearing masks and social distancing, but new ads promote the safety and significance of getting COVID-19 vaccines when offered in hopes of eradicating the disease. As with “The Story of Dr. Jenner,” these films hope to demonstrate the efficacy of vaccines and end disinformation and fake news spreading among the ignorant. Then as now, vaccines can restore health and normalcy to a suffering world.