Science gets a touch of drama

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Joanna Snicker meets an ex-teacher who's returning to the classroom to put some new life into science lessons. The tall man with unruly hair, dressed in Georgian garb, ambles to the front of the assembly hall at St Mark's Catholic school in Hounslow, London. "May I introduce myself," he says to the 14-year-old pupils before him. "I'm Dr Edward Jenner MD. Which stands for medical doctor, not mad doctor."

Edward Jenner, otherwise known as Garry Brooking of the Famous People Company, has been touring schools across the country this year telling the story of his life and his most important achievement. Jenner's discovery 200 years ago of a vaccine for smallpox was not only a huge social advance, but a major triumph for the scientific method.

Born in 1749, Jenner lived in a world where smallpox killed one in five and permanently disfigured sufferers during the frequent epidemics. It affected the old and the young, the rich and the poor. Queen Elizabeth I almost died from smallpox, and one explanation for her omnipresent, thick, white make-up is that it concealed the scars.

Thanks to Jenner, by 1978 the disease had been eradicated around the world. He was not the first scientist to inoculate - scratching smallpox into the skin was a widespread precautionary practice - but he discovered that milkmaids in his native Gloucestershire who suffered from the relatively harmless cowpox did not contract the deadly smallpox.

In 1796 he successfully vaccinated an eight-year-old boy, using cowpox matter, and two years later published his discoveries. As a result, the average yearly number of deaths from smallpox in London alone soon fell from 2,018 to 622.

Brooking's portrayal of Jenner certainly enlivens science lessons, which are so often constrained by the formal demands of the national curriculum. It is also a serious attempt to broaden the scope of science learning, following in the wake of similar initiatives around the country, such as the exhibition at the Natural History Museum's Earth Galleries, and the hands-on centres that have been set up in Halifax and Cardiff.

At the same time Brooking makes sure the show meets the learning requirements of the national curriculum, and of GCSE and A-level syllabuses, for history in particular. So, for example, Jenner's all-important investigations proving the link between cowpox and immunity from smallpox are explained in the context of the prevailing social conditions in 18th-century Britain.

"I want to give you a little sense of the world in which I grew up and how I became interested in medicine and became a doctor," Brooking tells the pupils. In what sounds like a history lesson, he talks about Jenner's childhood, the untimely deaths of his parents and brother and how his fascination with fossils and frogspawn led him towards a career in natural science.

Brooking argues that this human approach is more effective than concentrating purely on the science. Pupils, he says, will be interested in the characters and their experiences and so understand the scientific details more quickly.

His own background is testimony to this argument. He dropped science in school in favour of arts and went on to become a teacher. "My own history teacher told me scientists were all narrow-minded," he says. However, he converted in 1991 when he started playing Captain Cook as part of a community theatre project. He felt he could relate to Cook's personal enthusiasm for nature: "When I was playing Cook - and Jenner as well - they touched into my own childhood experience of nature. There was a desire to find out about the world which would take the form, in my case, of the flowers, bugs, ants in the garden. And then there is a link to the natural sciences."

The pupils at the various schools Brooking has toured say they were entertained into learning. "I enjoyed it because he made it fun to listen to and to watch," says 11-year-old Danielle Marsden of St Albans High School.

This empathetic approach might be criticised for making light of a serious subject. As Dr Jenner ambles off the stage at St Mark's amid laughter, do the pupils remember the humour or the science? Brooking, who will play George Stephenson next year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, agrees that he probably makes Jenner more humorous than he actually was, but argues this is a valid way of approaching the subject.

"The humour is secondary," he says. "It is a way of connecting with the audience, but it is not the only way. It breaks them up and opens them up, in order for them to be able to receive the facts and the details. I can feel the pupils responding on an emotional level and then the education is happening with mind and with emotion.

"They can feel it personally; it is not an abstract."

Garry Brooking can be contacted on O181 293 O376.

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