Today I bring you the cautionary tale of Edmund Dolling. Genealogy is one of my interests, and I recently discovered a website called BillionGraves.com, where you send in photographs of gravestones to add to their growing database.
I’ve already added numerous pictures from my local churchyard, but I’m currently celebrating my birthday with family and friends in Wiltshire and I couldn’t resist taking some in the lovely churchyard of St Michael the Archangel, Mere. The very first gravestone I came to was, like many of the others, too weathered to read – but luckily there was plaque beneath it with a transcription, taken when the stone was in better condition.
It commemorated the aforesaid Edmund Dolling, who was just 21 when he died from smallpox. But what intrigued me was a reference to him having ‘designedly’ taken the disease. He died in 1737 and I knew that Edward Jenner didn’t introduce inoculation till the end of that century, so I wondered what the story behind Edmund’s demise could be.
A bit of research revealed that although Jenner successfully demonstrated that giving cowpox to people could ward off smallpox, the general concept of ‘like curing/preventing like’ had been around for some time before that and had come from China and the Middle East. It was known as variolation, and the idea was to take some pus or a scab from a person who had survived smallpox and introduce it into the system of an unaffected person via a scratch or small cut. It actually could work, and attracted great interest because smallpox was a much-feared disease. But, not surprisingly, results were very hit and miss and, as poor Edmund discovered, experimentation could backfire with fatal results.
Although I’m grateful that the epitaph tells us Edmund’s story, I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that he has such a stern, censorious memorial. Who knows what drove Edmund to attempt such a drastic step? Perhaps he had seen people close to him die or be badly disfigured by the disease and so felt driven to take such a risky preventative measure. I prefer to think of him as a pioneer.