'Birthplace of vaccination' museum in UK at risk after Covid closure

Steven Morris
·3 min read

The future of a museum that tells the astonishing story of the British “father of immunology” is hanging in the balance because it has been forced to close throughout the Covid crisis and faces uncertainty over how it will operate in the post-pandemic world.

Edward Jenner’s former family home in Gloucestershire has been shut since February, and the decision has been taken to keep it closed until spring, meaning it will lose more than a year’s vital admission fees.

Supporters of Dr Jenner’s House, which bills itself as the birthplace of vaccination, have pointed out the irony of it facing financial crisis in the year when its subject matter is so pertinent.

Owen Gower, the museum’s manager, said Jenner’s work had taken on a new relevance in 2020. “But unfortunately we’ve had to close our doors for it,” he said.

Born in 1749, Jenner spent much of his childhood exploring the countryside around his home. He was a polymath who studied medicine, horticulture and the natural world, achieving his fellowship of the Royal Society for a paper on the nesting habits of cuckoos.

In 1796, he carried out the world’s first controlled vaccination against smallpox and established a free vaccination clinic in the Temple of Vaccinia, a summerhouse in the garden of Chantry House.

The museum in the village of Berkeley tells the story of Jenner and the wider history of vaccination. Visitors are invited to view his study, the gardens and summerhouse and study the wider history of vaccination.

Boris Johnson name-checked Jenner this week at his press conference on the day the first Covid vaccine was given approval for use in the UK, saying the techniques used by today’s scientists were “pioneered in this country by Edward Jenner”.

But despite Jenner’s place in history, his former home – which opened as a museum 35 years ago – is not particularly well known. Only about 7,000 people a year visit, with most tourists to the region heading to the Cotswolds or the cities of Bath and Bristol rather than Berkeley.

Until 2020, it had just about scraped through but faced a crisis when Covid meant it had to close completely to visitors.

Gower said: “Seventy per cent of our income is visitor admissions. That disappeared overnight. That’s the core funding. We don’t have any regular government grants.”

Reopening is proving difficult because its modest size makes social distancing difficult. Gower said: “It’s a small family home, that’s the charm of it, but it’s also the challenge of operating safely and sustainably in the age of Covid-19.”

A crowd-funding effort was launched and helped raise enough money to secure the museum’s future until the spring, but the museum warns that it has not been saved from permanent closure.

The Jenner Trust, the charity that runs the museum, has ambitious plans to reshape what it does, expanding its remit to inspire not only those who visit in person but reach out to people around the world through online events and conferences. It is seeking funding for this concept and also wants to build an endowment to allow the building to be looked after in perpetuity.

Gower said: “We are trying to look to the future. We want what we have here to be accessible to the whole world, not just to people who come to Berkeley.”