COPEMAN, Sydney Monckton (1862-1947)
Plaque erected in 1996 by English Heritage at 57 Redcliffe Gardens, Chelsea, London, SW10 9JJ, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
SYDNEY MONCKTON COPEMAN 1862-1947 Immunologist and developer of smallpox vaccine lived here
The immunologist Sydney Monckton Copeman is best known for his work in the development of the smallpox vaccine, which ultimately eradicated the disease. His blue plaque commemorates 57 Redcliffe Gardens where he lived with his family from about 1903 until 1909.
Born in Norwich, where his father was a clergyman, Copeman trained at St Thomas’s Hospital in London and spent most of his career in public health, working first for the Local Government Board and later for the Ministry of Health. Copeman focused his research on the vaccinia virus and the viruses that caused smallpox.
The smallpox vaccine was the first to be developed against a contagious disease. Building on the work of Edward Jenner and other immunologists, Copeman’s chief innovation was the use of glycerine to keep the vaccine sterile when it was grown in the lymph of calves. He first advocated this method in 1893 and it was ratified by the Vaccination Act of 1898. Copeman’s advances meant that the dangers of passing on bacterial infection through the vaccine were abolished and its reliability was preserved – the vaccine could now be stored for long periods of time and transported around the world. Once a mass killer, smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1977.
REDCLIFFE GARDENS AND PUBLIC HEALTH CAREER
Redcliffe Gardens was Copeman’s home from about 1903 until 1909, during which time the government’s smallpox vaccination programme was gearing up, thanks to his breakthrough. He lived at number 57 with his wife Ethel, née Boord (1869–1944) and their young family. Ethel helped him to prepare his work for publication and also assisted with his correspondence in French, German and Italian with the international medical community.
Copeman worked in the tradition of public health research first established by Sir John Simon. He wrote nearly a hundred scientific papers and reports, whose topics ranged from household sanitation to chemical pollution. Alongside his work on smallpox, he traced outbreaks of scarlatine, typhus, and enteric fevers to the contamination of underground water supplies, and investigated the outbreak of a mysterious epidemic skin disease, the nature of which is still unclear. For another investigation he tracked individual flies over distances of 1,000 yards (900 metres) or more in order to establish how far they could carry infections.
Copeman died at his home King’s Gardens in Hove, Sussex on 11 April 1947 and was buried at Brighton parish church.
Read more about Sydney Monckton Copeman at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.