New blue plaque commemorates ground breaking Plymouth surgeon

New blue plaque commemorates ground breaking Plymouth surgeon

3 April 2024

A new blue plaque honouring a pioneering Plymouth surgeon and the first person to coin the term ‘vaccination’ has been unveiled in Devonport.

Dr Richard Dunning was born in Plymouth in 1761. He married his wife Anne at Stoke Damerel Parish Church in April 1785. They went on to have a son, also called Richard, and a daughter named Jane.

His plaque is located outside 8 Albemarle Villas, just off Paradise Road where he lived during the latter part of his life. The plaque was proposed by the Plymouth Medical Society which awards the ‘Richard Dunning Cup’ in his honour each year.

Dunning was one of the founder members of the Plymouth Medical Society and was living in Dock (now Devonport) at the time it was established.

He’d been interested in cowpox since the early 1800s and had been following the work of Edward Jenner (1749-1823), a well-known physician and scientist. Jenner had published a paper detailing his experience with farmers who had suffered blisters on their hands from milking cows affected by ‘the pox’, but who’d then turned out to be immune from the much more dangerous smallpox virus.

Steve Conway, Collections Manager at The Box, Tony Barnard from Stoke Damerel Parish Church, Jonathan Unsworth-White president of the Plymouth Medical Society, Alan Barclay, Collections Assistant at The Box and Dr Sarah Murray, Plymouth Medical Society

At the time, smallpox was a highly infectious disease that caused around 10% of deaths across the world. Jenner collected serum from some of the blisters and used it to inoculate a number of his patients, producing what he believed to be total immunity.

Dunning followed suit. His first case was a child in Devonport who he successfully inoculated using serum from a dairymaid in Eggbuckland. He used the term ‘vaccination’ to describe the process. The word comes from ‘vaccinia’ (the Latin term for cowpox), which in turn is derived from ‘vacca’ (the Latin word for cow).

Dunning was in regular communication with Jenner, who recognised his work and his use of the word ‘vaccination’. He announced it in London at a meeting of the Royal Jennerian Society, the organisation that had been set up to promote the eradication of smallpox.

Dr Sarah Murray, Plymouth Medical Society said:

Smallpox was once so harmful but has now been effectively eradicated and it’s the work of people like Edward Jenner and Plymouth’s Dr Richard Dunning that helped make it possible. After everything the world has been through over the last few years, and the importance of vaccination in the fight against COVID-19, it’s fantastic to be able to commemorate Dunning’s work with a distinctive blue plaque that highlights the contribution he made to both his local community and to global medicine.