18th-century physician Edward Jenner earned his place in the history books by creating the first vaccine and effectively curing the deadly smallpox virus. Generations of people remember him for his contribution to the well-being of the entire world. He was more than just a medical philanthropist — he was a true innovator.
In today’s market, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish yourself from the sea of companies offering almost the exact same solution in the exact same area. Innovation is the key to differentiation — and to success — as Jenner’s great accomplishment demonstrates.
Before the vaccine was finalized, 18th-century doctors protected their patients against smallpox by inoculation. This practice was imported from an uncertain eastern origin to Western Europe in the early 1700s. Though it served to lessen the severity of the smallpox virus, it was by no means a cure. At least in most instances.
Inoculation against smallpox involved removing the scabs of a smallpox patient and grinding them to a powder. The virus was then introduced into a healthy patient by brushing this powder over shallow scrapes and cuts made on the arms.
Though it may seem clear to us now that inoculation was both inelegant and inefficient, at the time of Jenner’s medical training it was the height of scientific disease prevention. The vast majority of English doctors in the 1700s sought to immunize their patients against smallpox using this method. Jenner did not accept that this was the best method.
Jenner was apprenticed in his early twenties to surgeon John Hunter in London. Hunter is said to have related fellow physician William Harvey’s famous advice, “Don’t think; try.”
At first glance, these seem like pretty irresponsible words for a doctor to live by. But an impressionable young Jenner clearly took the advice to heart. In a way, they make perfect sense: innovators shouldn’t let themselves get bogged down in theory. You can draw up as many models and projections as you want — but until you test your new product or your new way of doing things, you can’t know how successful you will be.
Like the human body, businesses can be unpredictable. We still don’t truly understand many aspects of anatomy, so we have to responsibly experiment in order to see how different people respond to medical techniques. Business solutions can be approached in the same way.
Through his observation of the world around him, Jenner came to the conclusion that the common — and mostly harmless — cowpox disease seemed to create immunity from smallpox. Milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox, and Jenner believed this was because they had been infected with smallpox’s less dangerous cousin.
His hypothesis was that being infected with cowpox could induce immunity to smallpox. He had potentially discovered a better way to immunize patients against the disease. A way that would prevent the disease entirely, not just lessen its severity.
This hypothesis proved true when Jenner got the opportunity to test it on the eight-year-old son of his gardener. He inoculated the boy against cowpox, which caused the boy to develop a minor fever for several days. After a reprieve of a few weeks, he inoculated the boy with smallpox. He wound up not developing the minor form of the disease that patients usually did.
Jenner’s method was further tested, and he eventually developed a standard vaccine against smallpox. He then inoculated patients with the less dangerous cowpox virus to create a lasting immunity. His vaccine was a significant improvement in the existing method, and over decades led to the eradication of the smallpox virus in the 1970s.
The old way of treatment was something Jenner fully understood, and something he distributed himself for a good part of his life. But unlike his peers, he did not just continue to use the accepted method.
You and your business can’t just “go along” with the accepted way of doing things. There is always something that can be improved upon — some problems can be solved – by you and your firm. If you start thinking of ways to do things differently than your competitors, you can work towards becoming an innovator. Observe and challenge the status quo relentlessly and these ideas will become the norm rather than the exception.
Innovation is the key to differentiation. Find a better way to do what you do, and you will stand out from the crowd, for clients and for your industry as a whole. Theory and thinking isn’t everything — you have to see how your new ideas stand up in practice.