TIP Talk!

Thursday July 6, 2017

A Statue for the Hero Who Saved 500 Million Lives


If you could erect a statue to a great man or woman in history, who would that be? Founding Father George Washington is one person who comes to mind quickly. Of course, there’s the nearly 100-year-old statue of Abraham Lincoln at his memorial in Washington D.C. and the much newer statue, only 6 years old, of Martin Luther King. Then there are people who love bigger-than-life-sized statues of rock singers—such as Freddie Mercury, and in Memphis, Elvis Presley. We all have our own ideas about people who seemed larger than life.

Here at TIP, we were thinking about honor and statues recently because a friend traveling in Switzerland posted a wonderful photo of a statue honoring a different kind of hero: Edward Jenner, who developed the smallpox vaccine. It stands in front of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva.

Statues honoring scientists and their discoveries are relatively rare. But Jenner was a true hero on a mega-scale. The website Science Heroes estimates that he saved more than 500 million lives.

It’s fitting that the statue honoring an achievement and gift of this magnitude doesn’t actually depict Jenner. (There is a statue of him in London’s Kensington Gardens, created during the 19th Century when his extraordinary contributions to humanity were already well recognized.) Rather, it shows a group of four people. A man and a woman stand behind a girl who is about to receive an inoculation from a health care worker, who is kneeling to the task as though realizing that he is a servant to humanity.

The idea of the statue, unveiled in 2010, is to honor not just the father of the modern vaccine but the intensive worldwide effort that led to the eradication of smallpox. It entailed the world working together against a common enemy.

“The eradication of smallpox shows that with strong mutual resolve, teamwork and an international spirit of solidarity, ambitious global public health goals can be attained,” Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO, said at the time.

“The statue stands as a reminder of the significance of such an achievement and shows the power of international health cooperation to do great and lasting good.”

The last case of smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977. Three years later, the disease was declared eradicated.

Smallpox, now relegated to history, was one of the most “feared and deadly diseases,” according to WHO. Its presence as a killer could be traced back 3,500 years. “People in many countries worshiped special deities intended to protect them from smallpox.” A WHO statement says.

Deities or not, one third of infected people died.

The eradication of smallpox also serves as a potent response to today’s vaccine doubters who say that the modern schedule of childhood vaccines exists largely to serve pharmaceutical company profits. Once a vaccine-preventable disease is extinct, no one needs to be vaccinated against it anymore. At that point, humanity benefits but pharmaceutical companies do not.

If and when current efforts succeed to wipe polio off the face off the earth – a global initiative has reduced the disease by 99 percent, WHO reported in April – that will be another vaccine that comes off the childhood immunization schedule. How great would it be to make measles and other dangerous communicable diseases extinct?

Thank you to our friend who was struck by this humble statue and thought to take a picture of it. Jenner and the people who followed him with the single-minded determination to erase one of the scourges of mankind deserve the honor. Remembering their ambitious lifesaving efforts might help us all take the next steps toward creating a safer and healthier world.



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