Sir William Jenner and the Distinction of Typhus and Typhoid

Sir William Jenner, 1st Baronet

Sir William Jenner, 1st Baronet

On January 30, 1815, English physician Sir William Jenner was born. Jenner is primarily known for having discovered the distinction between typhus and typhoid. While “typhoid” means “typhus-like”, typhus and typhoid fever are distinct diseases caused by different genera of bacteria.

Early Years

William Jenner was born in Chatham, North Kent, in South East England. He attended University College, London where he studied medicine. Jenner was further apprenticed to a surgeon in Marylebone. William Jenner was appointed surgeron to the Royal Maternity Charity, Finsbury Square while he continued to study. Jenner received his M.D. degree in 1844 and became a consultant. In 1859, William Jenner published a work titled On the Identity or Non-Identity of Typhoid and Typhus Fevers. Much of Jenner’s success built on that work. Already in 1847  Jenner started to investigate cases of continued fever at the London Fever Hospital. These studies later enabled him to make the distinction between typhus and typhoid.

A Brief History of Typhus

Even though the earliest descriptions of what could probably be identified as typhus are known from the Middle Ages, typhus was presumably known as Gaol Fever which appeared heavily during the English Civil War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Napoleonic Wars. During the year without summer in the early 19th century, a typhus epidemic killed thousands in Europe and in Canada, the typhus epidemic of 1847 killed more than 20.000 people from 1847 to 1848, mainly Irish immigrants in fever sheds and other forms of quarantine, who had contracted the disease aboard the crowded coffin ships in fleeing the Great Irish Famine.

.. and Typhoid Fever

The typhoid fever is believed to have killed one-third of the population of Athens, including their leader Pericles. Following the plaque back then, the power shifted from Athens to Sparta, ending the Golden Age of Pericles that had marked Athenian dominance in the Greek ancient world. In later years, it is assumed that the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia, died out from typhoid and that the fever killed more than 6.000 settlers in the New World between 1607 and 1624. During the American Civil War, 81.360 Union soldiers died of typhoid or dysentery, far more than died of battle wounds. In the late 19th century, the typhoid fever mortality rate in Chicago averaged 65 per 100.000 people a year. During the Spanish–American War, American troops were exposed to typhoid fever in stateside training camps and overseas, largely due to inadequate sanitation systems.

Causative Agent and Therapies

While both fevers were incredibly dangerous and contagious, typhoid fever is a bacterial infection due to Salmonella Typhi, and typhus is caused by Rickettsia bacteria. The first typhus vaccine was developed by the Polish zoologist Rudolf Weigl in the period between the two world wars and the first typhoid vaccine was developed by the British bacteriologist Almroth Edward Wright at the Army Medical School in Netley, Hampshire. It was first used in 1896.

William Jenner’s early work on typhus and typhoid had already let to his appointment as professor of pathological anatomy at University College as well as assistant physician to University College Hospital. In the years to come, William Jenner would further hold the offices of Holme professor of clinical medicine, professor of medicine, full physician, and consulting physician.

At yovisto academic video search you can learn more about Discovering Bacteria in a Talk by Bonnie Bassler.

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