The Founding Fathers and Vaccination


The incredibly cool Lindsay Beyerstein writes at The Nation about Michele Bachmann’s anti-vaccination nonsense — and what the founding fathers she claims to revere so much might think about it.

Bachmann’s grasp of political science is as shaky as her grasp of medical science. As a Tea Party conservative, Bachmann styles herself as defender of original vision of the founding fathers for America. Ironically, several of the founding fathers were champions of inoculation against infectious disease. Some even played key roles in ushering in the vaccine age.

If it hadn’t been for mandatory smallpox inoculation, the Republic might never have survived. General George Washington ordered the Continental Army inoculated against smallpox in 1777, the first large scale inoculation of an army in history. Washington was supported in this effort by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and the chair of the Continental Congress’ Medical Department.


And this is an interesting fact I didn’t know. It wasn’t just the founding fathers, it was even a Puritan preacher:

Inoculation was a precursor to vaccination which induced a milder case of smallpox by scratching the skin and rubbing in pus from a smallpox lesion. Cleric and amateur scientist Cotton Mather provided a dramatic proof of concept for inoculation when he inoculated 287 people during a smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1721. Only six of the inoculated individuals died, a much lower death rate than for natural smallpox. Mather gets credit for introducing smallpox inoculation to North America, but he learned about it from Onesimus, a slave who had undergone inoculation in Africa.

Despite the success of his experiment, Mather was widely vilified for mocking the will of God. At the time, many believed that smallpox was a divine punishment for sins and that trying to evade the consequences of sinning by getting inoculated was a sin in itself. That argument sounds ridiculous to modern ears, but that same logic still prevails in some quarters when discussing sexually transmitted diseases.

And more on the founding fathers:

Inoculation was dangerous both for the patient for others because the inoculated person remained contagious. Nearly all colonies passed laws to restrict inoculation. George Washington vehemently disagreed. He inoculated his entire household. If he had his way, inoculation against smallpox would have been mandatory.

“Surely that Impolitic Act, restraining Inoculation in Virginia, can never be continued. If I was a Member of that Assembly, I would rather move for a Law to compell the Masters of Families to inoculate every Child born within a certain limitted time under severe Penalties,” George Washington wrote to one his brothers in 1777.

Despite Washington’s confidence in the procedure, the decision to mandate inoculation of the Continental Army was not an easy one. The Continental Congress debated for a year over whether compulsory inoculation of troops was an overreach of central authority. The delegates worried about whether the troops would accept the inoculation.

Benjamin Rush argued persuasively that without mandatory inoculation of troops the republic might not survive. Washington, who had survived a bout of smallpox as a teenager, argued that the threat of disease was more dreadful than the sword of the enemy. In May of 1776, smallpox killed 1,800 out of 7,000 American troops in Montreal in just two weeks…

Among his many achievements, which included writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer of smallpox prevention. He was a proponent of smallpox inoculation. As a young lawyer he acted on behalf of doctors who were persecuted for performing inoculations, including one physician whose house was burned to the ground by a mob during an anti-inoculation riot.

Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, a Harvard professor and doctor and who was trying to use Edward Jenner’s cowpox vaccine in America, contacted then–vice president Jefferson. Jenner’s treatment, which he first tested successfully in 1796, was revolutionary because it was a true vaccine, not a milder case of smallpox.

To say Jefferson was enthusiastic about the project would be an understatement. Jefferson invented an insulated vial that allowed Waterhouse to ship samples of cowpox to Virginia where Jefferson tested the vaccine.

None of this will get through to Bachmann, of course.

Comments

  1. says

    “If I was a Member of that Assembly, I would rather move for a Law to compell the Masters of Families to inoculate every Child born within a certain limitted time under severe Penalties,” George Washington wrote to one his brothers in 1777.

    SOCIALIST.

  2. MikeMa says

    Bachmann has neither the wit nor the will to grasp the consequences of her ignorance. She is likely one of those proclaiming god’s will in response to outbreaks of disease just as she did with the hurricane and the earthquake earlier this year. She, and others like her, fail to even consider the idea that god’s will may include the study of nature with a goal to eradicate disease. Why is it that god’s will is nearly always manifest in disaster, disease and suffering with hardly a mention of the intellect used to reduce that suffering.

  3. John Hinkle says

    General George Washington ordered the Continental Army inoculated against smallpox in 1777, the first large scale inoculation of an army in history.

    Yeah ok, but I bet a mother of one of the troops complained to Washington that her son, after the inoculation, became mentally retarded. So there.

  4. 386sx says

    General George Washington ordered the Continental Army inoculated against smallpox in 1777, the first large scale inoculation of an army in history.

    No wonder they crossed the Delaware. They had the “inoculation crazy”. No sane people would cross the Delaware.

  5. D. C. Sessions says

    Why is it that god’s will is nearly always manifest in disaster, disease and suffering

    It’s like any advertising: you show people what turns them on.

  6. 386sx says

    “These are the times that try men’s fouls: The fummer foldier and the funfhine patriot will, in this crifis, fhrink from the fervice of his country; but he that ftands it N O W, deferves the love and thanks of man and woman.” –Thomas Paine

  7. bananacat says

    Bachmann’s only objection to an HPV vaccine is that it’s for an STD, which means women will face less punishment for having sex. Conservative Christians didn’t really jump on the anti-vax bandwagon in large numbers until one was created to make sex safer. They’re mad that women can have sex that they disapprove of without being punished by dying.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    How strange that neither Beyerstein nor Brayton mentions a bit of the most consequential fallout of Mather’s inoculation campaign.

    Some of the most strident critics of the Puritan honcho published a newspaper in Boston, which went gonzo-tabloid in mocking him and his unproved medical treatment. After a while, Big Cotton got tired of this and applied some serious pressure – enough to force at least one vociferous staffer from this scurrilous rag to get the hell out of town with little more than the clothes on his back.

    And that, boys and girls, is how Benjamin Franklin came to seek his fortune in Philadelphia.

  9. johnbundock says

    #
    Didaktylos says:
    September 28, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Vaccination – it’s the one kind of homoeopathy that actually works.
    #
    eric says:
    September 28, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Didaktylos – I think you mean “inoculation.” :)
    #
    Didaktylos is correct. Vaccination was exposing patients to cow pox; that had some similar, but lesser, symptoms to smallpox. Homoeopaths saw this as part proof of their theory that like cures like. The real change in homoeopathy in the past 200 years (besides changing oeo to eo and developing the theory that water has memory) is that now its practitioners no longer support vaccination.

  10. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    “In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.” ~~~ Benjamin Franklin

    It was James Franklin, Ben’s older brother, who went after Mather during the smallpox epidemic. Not Ben. Ben left his apprenticeship with James without permission, not because Mather expelled him from Boston.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    Tsu Dho Nimh @ # 16 – You drove me to Ronald W. Clark’s bio of BF, and by the FSM you’re right!

    Well, mostly right:

    “The two made up an ill-mated pair,” it was once said. “From disagreements they passed to insults. Insults led to quarrels. Quarrels to blows, and with blows they parted.” No one knows what the issue was, but Benjamin himself later wrote: “Perhaps I was too saucy and provoking.” … There was an additional reason for leaving the city where he had been born and brought up: “my indiscrete Disputations about Religion begun to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist.”

    Mather was involved indirectly, as having arranged for James Franklin to be jailed and barred from publishing the New-England Courant, thus leading to a ruse whereby Benjamin was the nominal publisher and forcing the ill-mated pair into a too-close relationship – but that’s no excuse for my error. :-P

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply