One week old today, but still five weeks before his due date, my daughter’s baby Stanley has transferred to the Whittington neonatal intensive care unit in north London. He’s gone through a battery of scans, tests, ups, downs, drips, tubes, scares and reliefs sufficient to fray the calmest nerves.
So far, it’s so good, and like most people who have cause to rely on the health service I’m filled with gratitude and admiration for those who make it work today – and also for those whose vision and commitment bequeathed us the NHS in the first place.
There’s a special poignancy for me about the location of the neonatal unit at the Whittington. You enter and leave through the ‘Jenner exit’, so named after the Jenner Building, now offices but once the Smallpox and Vaccination Hospital, established in 1848.
Edward Jenner, of course, is famous for having developed the smallpox vaccine. In particular, although he wasn’t the first to make the observation, he noted that milkmaids only rarely contracted smallpox and theorised that it was the result of their exposure to cowpox, a similar but much less virulent strain of the disease. From this knowledge it proved possible to develop increasingly effective inoculation techniques until smallpox was eventually declared to have been completely eliminated ‘in the wild’ in 1977.
The poignancy for me is that my great, great grandmother – a woman with whom I have developed an oddly powerful affinity, despite never having known her – died of smallpox in one of the last great epidemics in this country. The fact that she was a milkmaid failed to protect her.