Michael Faraday; & Edward Jenner

David Gooding | Published in History Today
  • Michael Faraday: Sandemanian And Scientist
    Geoffrey Cantor – Macmillan, 1991 - xii+ 359 pp. - £40
  • Edward Jenner: 1749-1823
    Richard B. Fisher - Andre Deutsch, 1991 - xii+361 pp. - £20

Edward Jenner advanced preventive medicine by transforming the widely used but poorly understood practice of 'variolation' into an effective method of vaccination against smallpox. Michael Faraday – still a boy when Jenner made his crucial trials – made many contributions to physics and chemistry, though he is best known for the discovery that eventually led to electrical power technology – electromagnetic induction. According to the World Health Organisation, the world became virtually free from smallpox in 1980. Electrification and the technologies it supports are ubiquitous. Modern life would be very different without Faraday's and Jenner's achievements.

These two biographies are works of considerable scholarship: both draw extensively on manuscript sources (including unpublished correspondence); they are fully referenced and include comprehensive bibliographies. Yet they carry their erudition lightly; each author offers a lively, engaging account of the life, work and importance of his subject. Fisher is able to offer a more detailed account of Jenner's early life than Cantor can of Faraday's, because the landed gentry of Gloucestershire could make and preserve records of familial and financial activities whereas the Faradays – a blacksmith's family recently moved to London – could not. Cantor's major contribution is his study of the historical and religious context of Faraday's family, friends and colleagues. Cantor's subtitle suggests a specialist interest and his account of the origins, doctrines and practices of the Sandemanian sect to which Faraday belonged is the most searching of any to date. Yet his account has wider importance: it informs a sensitive portrayal of the intimate relationship between Faraday's religious beliefs and the character and conduct of his scientific work. The result is a substantial contribution to understanding how a person's religious sensibility and spirituality informs his or her work.

I was surprised by similarities that transcend the obvious differences caused by the social distance between these two men. Both served long apprenticeships that immersed them in practical knowledge that proved important for the work that made them famous. Jenner was apprenticed to John Hunter (introduced to the London medical scene by his more famous brother, William) from whom he received practical instruction superior that at Oxford or Cambridge. Jenner had survived an apparently indifferent schooling which included exposure to the innoculatory practice of variolation. This seemed more designed to kill than to protect, though, as Fisher suggests, the resistance to smallpox of those who survived this treatment was improved. He continued to do experiments for John Hunter on topics as diverse as animal heat and the expulsion of chicks from nests by cuckoos. His association with the Hunter brothers was vital for later success, providing access to important channels for the communication and wider acceptance of his later work – the pages of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and election to its ranks.

Faraday's lack of schooling is legendary. We therefore tend to forget that he was effectively apprenticed to Humphry Davy and W.T. Brande – both leading chemists and experimentalists – and that his tour with Davy of continental scientific establishments provided an excellent preparation for experimental philosophy. His place in the Royal Institution gave him ready access to the material, human and institutional resources he needed. A second similarity is that Faraday and Jenner emerge from these studies as adventurous and enquiring in the service of medicine and natural philosophy, yet both stayed close to their birthplaces. Fisher surmises that Jenner needed to remain close to his roots in Berkeley. Faraday's passage from humble origins in Newington Butts to a major scientific institution in London's fashionable west end implies a major journey, yet the network of Sandemanian families provided continuity and the Royal Institution provided a home and a place in which he could maintain the delicate balance between private and religious concerns, on the one hand, and the unruly, unpredictable worlds of natural phenomena and of public pressures, on the other. A third similarity is that though both men could have benefited from patents, neither tried to possess major innovations in this way – though Jenner's claims to priority came before a Parliamentary Committee that eventually awarded him the considerable sum of £10,000 in recognition of his invention.

Biographies such as these may be more useful to non-scientists than books that popularise the history or technical content of scientific fields. The importance of scientific research to the everyday use of preventive medicine or electrical technology is quickly lost sight of. The methods and technologies that Faraday and Jenner made possible are so ubiquitous as to be invisible. The abstruseness of science is often blamed for this invisibility, but it is also due to the fact that discoveries need not wear their authorship on their sleeve. In contrast to literature and the arts, where an author's identity somehow remain important to understanding a work, the human story behind a discovery quickly becomes unimportant. This is because technology must wear its uses – not its history – on its sleeve. (We use a radio or CD player to hear Mozart or Madonna – not because of who invented it.) This is one reason why science is perceived as impersonal and opaque, divorced from ordinary human understanding in a way that the work of da Vinci or Mozart is not. In an age that places such importance on individual identity, scientific biographies can promote understanding of how the world – increasingly manipulated by and perceived through science – has been shaped by people like Jenner and Faraday.

  • David Gooding is the author of Faraday (Macmillan Education, 1991).
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