Spotlight: pass the port, Dr Jenner

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By | From the Collections

When Edward Jenner, the vaccination pioneer, died in 1823, he left over 800 books among his personal effects. They are listed in an inventory preserved in the Wellcome Library (MS 3028). They include, unsurprisingly, a large number of works on medicine, including of course vaccination, but also literature and classics, theology and sermons, history and topography.

One book that is not listed, though it may lurk beneath one of the catch-all entries in the inventory ’70 books on surgery and medicine’, is Jenner’s copy of Charles Wilson’s Observations on the Gout. This he seems to have bought in its year of publication. Jenner signed his copy, as was his normal practice, and added the date 1815.



Wilson intended his Observations as a work of popular medicine to enable patients to manage their condition and importantly to promote his own remedy for the disease. Presumably Jenner acquired the book for reasons of professional interest only, for there is no evidence that he himself ever suffered from gout. He was assailed by various nervous disorders throughout his life, which manifested themselves particularly in acute dyspepsia, or indigestion, but gout, the affliction of choice of the Regency gentleman, seems to have passed him by.

This is perhaps the more surprising when we turn to the contents of Jenner’s cellar in the household inventory. The appraisers noted 648 bottles of port at his two houses in Berkeley and Cheltenham, besides prodigious quantities of wine and ale. In 1825, 40,277 tuns of port were imported into Great Britain, equating in the opinion of the physician Sir Henry Halford to forty thousand cases of gout. We can only speculate as to why Jenner apparently hoarded so much liquor: could it be that he was in fact remarkably abstemious, keeping stocks for entertaining but rarely indulging himself, and thus keeping himself gout-free?

Richard Aspin

Richard Aspin

Dr Richard Aspin is Head of Research in the Wellcome Library. An archivist and manuscripts curator by training, he has spent many years working with the Library’s collections, as both custodian and researcher. His main motivation for studying the past is to help rescue forgotten lives from the enormous condescension of posterity.

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2 comments on Spotlight: pass the port, Dr Jenner
  • John Hobson


    Except port doesn’t cause gout. I can assure you! If only it did it would be easy to cure.

  • Dr Jenner's House, Museum and Garden


    There are still a few very dusty bottles down in the cellar at Berkeley…

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