James Phipps

James Phipps (1788 – 1853)

James Phipps was the first subject who received arm to arm transfer of cowpox vaccine and thus is a historical character in the annals of medicine and science, not unlike Joseph Meister, the first subject successfully vaccinated for rabies.  Phipps is believed to have been born in 1788 in Berkeley Parish, the son of a propertyless laborer who apparently worked for Jenner from time to time.  According to Parish records, Phipps was baptised in St Mary’s church at the age of 4 years3.

In 1796,  a young girl, Sarah Nelmes  contracted cowpox while milking cows on her father’s farm.  Jenner transferred material from a cowpox pustule on Nelmes’ hand to young Phipps.1  As related by Jenner, “On the seventh day he complained of uneasiness in the axilla, and on the ninth he became a little chilly, lost his appetite, and had a slight head-ache…..” but on the 10th day he was perfectly well….    In order to ascertain whether the boy, after feeling so slight an affection of the system from Cow-pox virus, was secure from the contagion of the Small-pox, he was inoculated the 1st of July following with variolous matter (Small-pox matter, ed.) immediately taken from a pustule……No disease followed…. Several months afterwards, he was again inoculated with variolous matter, but no sensible effect was produced on the constitution.”

Over the next twenty years Phipps was inoculated  repeatedly for small-pox to demonstrate his permanent immunity to the disease.  During this time he was employed as an assistant gardener to Jenner.  When traveling in the neighborhood in 1818 with Baron he passed Phipps. “Oh, there is poor Phipps,” he exclaimed. “I wish you could see him; he has been very unwell lately, and I am afraid he has got tubercles in the lungs.  He was recently inoculated for small-pox, I believe, for the twentieth time without effect.”  At a subsequent visit, (Oct. 1818), I found lying on his table a plan of a cottage. “Oh”, said he, “that is for poor Phipps; you remember him: he has a miserable  place to live in; I am about to give him another.  He has been very ill, but is now materially better.”  This cottage was built, and its little garden laid out and stocked with roses from his own shrubbery, under his personal superintendence2.   

Phipps recovered from tuberculosis and lived with his wife and two children in the cottage.  Phipps was a mourner at Jenner’s funeral in 1823.  Phipps died in18533.  After his death, the cottage was returned to the then owners of the property, the Berkeley Estate.   In 1966, the cottage served as the home of the  first Jenner Museum3.

1This is Case XVII of the Inquiry, reproduced on this web site (see p. 32 and Plate 1).

2Life of Edward Jenner, John Baron, Volume II, 1838. London: Henry Colburn Publisher, p. 304 ff.

3There is a burial entry in the Parish Register for St. Mary’s Church, Berkeley  for ‘James Phipps, 25th April 1853, aged 66’.  This is presumed to be ‘the’ James Phipps.  Indeed, the name Phipps is scratched into the stonework at the front  and tower of St. Mary’s church.  The site of his grave is not known, so there is no identifiable tombstone. (Personal communication, David Mullin, Jenner Museum, 2004).