INCREDIBLE as it sounds, it was a Hexham-based medic who laid the foundations for the smallpox vaccine, a full 70 years before Edward Jenner arrived on the scene.

Overlooked and largely forgotten now, James Jurin (1684-1750) began his work trying to find an antidote to the deadly 18th century killer way back in the 1720s.

Originally a teacher by profession, he was appointed headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School in 1709, just four years after he graduated from Trinity College Cambridge.

Ten years later, he went back to university to study medicine, emerging just a year later with the requisite doctorate.

Judy Lloyd Duncan said: “He was a Londoner by birth and he set up a medical practice first of all in the south-east of the country.

“He was a lecturer to the Company of Surgeons, a physician, a governor of Guy’s Hospital for several years and a bit of an all round polymath, interested in all the different elements of science.

“He was a great supporter of Sir Isaac Newton, who he met at Royal Society gatherings, he was interested in what was the beginnings of meteorology and he corresponded with Voltaire.

“Actually, he was just interested in everything!”

Jurin’s mother was one of the Cotesworths, a wealthy merchant family operating out of Newcastle and Gateshead, and he himself went on to marry the wealthy widow of a Morpeth MP.

Somewhere along the line, his connections with the North-East led him to Hexham – and the purchase of The Hermitage mansion, standing on the banks of the Tyne.

It became the perfect country retreat for him and his wife and their five daughters, and it was to remain in the family for a generation after his death.

At around the same time that he bought The Hermitage, Jurin began his work on an early form of smallpox inoculation, known as ‘variolation’, that cemented his reputation.

It involved scraping pus from the sores of smallpox victims and then injecting it into healthy individuals, who would then develop a mild form of the disease that gave them an immunity against the full-blown thing.

“They must have been brave people,” remarked Judy.

“Jurin put out correspondence all over the country to find doctors who were willing to try what was basically an experiment and to collect the data afterwards.

“He wanted to know what the difference in mortality rates from smallpox would be between the group that had been injected with smallpox and the one that hadn’t.

“On the whole, he found that those people who had undergone variolation didn’t get smallpox.”

Jurin himself died a very wealthy man. His wife’s inheritance was certainly a factor, but he also reaped the rewards of a very successful career.

He left an estate valued, in today’s money, at £5.5m.