Learning from history is a good idea

Have you ever felt like you spend all your time explaining the obvious to idiots who are going to reflexively reject the evidence anyway? That’s the discouraging thing about battling creationism, you’re fighting willful ignorance. Even more significant is the need to explain the importance of vaccines when we’ve got mush-brained cranks like RFK Jr. geysering nonsense into the discourse that the media treats gently as if he has something intelligent to say.

This has always been a problem, though. Today I learned that Minnesota had mandatory vaccination laws for school children in 1883 (Yay! Woo-hoo! You go, Minnesota!) but that they repealed it in 1903 (booooo) after…a debate.

Fucking debates. Anyway, they dragged Justus Ohage, a real physician and the public health commissioner for St Paul into a debate with a carpet-bagger from Indiana, WB Clarke, who proceeded to glibly gish-gallup all over the place.

Dr. Clarke spoke next for an hour. He called Edward Jenner’s research “bogus.” He threw out incorrect and cherry-picked examples. He claimed that Germany had compulsory vaccination but also had the worst smallpox outbreak in Europe in 1871…
He did not mention that the smallpox epidemic was caused by unvaccinated French troops in Germany fighting in the Franco-Prussian War and that the vaccinated Germans suffered far less than the French.
There was no way for anyone to rebut these claims as he was making them, and Clarke was a smooth talker. He spoke quickly and vividly ultimately comparing the “vaccinator’s lancet” to a “highwayman’s butcher knife” saying that people had a right to defend themselves against each.
When Dr. Ohage took the stage, he only had 15 minutes. He said he did not have time to offer a rebuttal of each of Clarke’s claims. Instead, he had to defend “the attitude he had taken” against the anti-vaccinationists. The damage was done.

The result: the Minnesota legislature repealed the mandatory vaccination law in 1903.

Wait, no, that was only the proximate result. The long-term consequence was that Minnesota was ravaged by a smallpox epidemic in 1924-25 that killed 500 people. Oops.

State law blocked a sound public health response. An 1883 state law had required all school-age children to be vaccinated against smallpox. But in 1903, the legislature repealed that law and made compulsory child vaccination illegal. Although smallpox vaccination is almost 100 percent effective, public health officers had no power to make people protect themselves. They could recommend, but not mandate, the vaccine.

Starting in November 1924, both cities launched free vaccination campaigns. Once the deaths mounted, the frightened public jammed the vaccination centers. As reported in the Minneapolis Journal, as many as 17,000 got their skin scratches in a single day. By mid-December 1924—according to public health officials—some 210,000 people in St. Paul and 350,000 in Minneapolis had been vaccinated.

Clarke was never called to account for all the people he was responsible for killing. The sheep of Minnesota were cheerfully duped by a smooth-talking liar, and stampeded into the vaccination clinics to save themselves from their own stupidity.

It’s 1902 in the United States all over again. I’ll make the bold prediction that in 20 years or less we’re going to have to pay the piper.


  1. hemidactylus says

    Huxley and Darwin were pro-vaccination. Wallace and Spencer not so much.

  2. wzrd1 says

    As far as I’m concerned, anyone who Gish gallops in such a venue should be immediately vivisected. They basically are trying to force 1/3 to 1/2 of all children to die of horrific vaccine preventable diseases.

  3. raven says

    At least their aren’t all that many antivaxxers in the USA.
    The movement is more propaganda than effective.

    8% of U.S. population identifies as being fully anti-vaxxer, …

    Jun 9, 2021 — COLLEGE STATION, TX — As COVID-19 vaccinations continue to climb, a recent study done by the Texas A&M School of Public health found a …
    KXXV https://www.kxxv.com › brazos › 8-of-u-s-population…

    It is 8% in the USA.
    81% of the population is vaccinated against Covid-19 virus.
    14% are vaccine hesitant for one reason or another. They might accept some vaccines and reject others.

    This still isn’t good news but at least the hardcore antivaxxers are a small minority.

  4. raven says

    The antivaxxers aren’t the best our society can produce.

    A recent study shows that they have a lack of problem solving skills, and are rigid thinking, right wing, and xenophobic. They tend to also be low education.

    A lack of problem-solving skills and rigid thinking linked to vaccine refusal, study finds
    by Laura Staloch February 26, 2023 in Cognitive Science, COVID-19, Social Psychology

    A new study published in Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that individuals who struggle with problem-solving and demonstrate absolutist thinking, political conservatism, and xenophobia are more likely to refuse to get vaccinated. These findings indicate that a focus on improving problem-solving skills may result in improvements in public health due to higher vaccination rates.


  5. robro says

    There’s an interview in Scientific American with Abba Gumel, a mathematician and specifically a mathematical biologist, whose team has done research on the effect of vaccination rates on the COVID pandemic. Needless to say there’s solid evidence that the speed of developing and deploying the vaccines reduced the number of illnesses and deaths in areas where a lot of people got vaccinated. He even speaks to the positive effect of isolation before the vaccines were available.

  6. raven says

    One of the key variables driving the antivaxxers is low education levels.

    People don’t get vaccinated for ideological reasons.
    They get vaccinated because they don’t want to get sick and possibly die from one disease or another. You need to understand the germ theory of disease and be able to do cost-benefit calculations.

    Factors and reasons associated with low COVID-19 vaccine uptake among highly hesitant communities in the US
    Saif Khairat 1, Baiming Zou 2, Julia Adler-Milstein 3

    Conclusions: COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is a public health threat. Our findings suggest that low education levels are a major contributor to vaccine hesitancy and ultimately vaccination levels. Since education levels are not easily modifiable, our results suggest that policymakers would be best served by closing knowledge gaps to overcome negative perceptions of the vaccine through tailored interventions.

  7. raven says

    Needless to say there’s solid evidence that the speed of developing and deploying the vaccines reduced the number of illnesses and deaths in areas where a lot of people got vaccinated.


    The numbers are huge.
    The best estimate I’ve seen is that the Covid-19 virus vaccines saved the lives of 3.2 million Americans. That is a lot.

    The number of antivaxxers who died is also large.
    The best estimate is 330,000 antivaxxers dead.

    I asked some of the ICU workers in the local hospital during the peak of pandemic how many of their Covid-19 virus patients were unvaccinated. It was all of them.

  8. wzrd1 says

    I was vaccinated three times (primary, booster and second booster), ended up getting COVID-19 and had some mitral valve damage.
    Given the vaccine did its job and blunted what otherwise would’ve been a severe infection, I shudder to think of what havoc that virus and immune response I could’ve had without the vaccine!
    Got a booster again in April, I’ll be lining up again for the next, much more updated booster.
    Because, waking up dead really fucks up one’s weekend plans.

  9. hemidactylus says

    Aside from 5(???) injections of Spikevax, since 2019 I reupped on MMR for the hell of it, got my shingles series, and decided to get three polio shots despite whatever I received as a child. I’m the antipode of these antivax douches (RFK Jr included). If mpox vaccine were available to me I would do that too.

  10. wzrd1 says

    Crap! I just looked it up, I’m due for a shingles booster. Might as well go with the full series, well, other than mpox, which is a PIA to get hold of (I did have a booster of smallpox vaccine back around 2000, but that’s likely waned by now (smallpox vaccine cross immunizes against all of the orthopoxvirus flavors)).
    And pertussis and diphtheria can be carried by adults asymptomatically to those susceptible, so that’s a big plus.
    I will give a hard pass on the yellow fever shot, that one really was unpleasant and well, it isn’t endemic in the US (yet, we’re bringing back malaria now).
    A case in Texas, two in Florida, all natively transmitted. I guess we’ll need a new category, developed world, developing world, undeveloping world, perhaps?

  11. mordred says

    Recently talked to a local Doctor about how he sees the current Covid situation. He claims the only Covid deaths he has seen in recent months are antivaxxers. He doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for them…

  12. Matt G says

    raven@6- It seems to me the people least receptive to “tailored interventions” are the people who need tailored interventions.

  13. birgerjohansson says

    I suggest a large-scale experiment. If we spray Florida with the virus, maybe the result will impress thw surviving Floridans.
    Side effect: By a strange coincidence, a lot of DeSantis voters are not around.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    Also: now that experimental vaccines for Ebola are around, a few cases at the Bush ranch might scare people into accepting vaccines.
    Yes. I do not like the Bush clan.

  15. hemidactylus says

    @14 birgerjohansson
    Desantis and his quack Surgeon General managed to preside over the unnecessary deaths of too many Floridians already (what Ron the Dictator callously dismissed as “COVID theater”). We don’t need virus sprayed here!

    And no to the Ebola in Texas. Just because our states are festering shitholes doesn’t warrant introducing horrific viruses into our midst.

  16. birgerjohansson says

    Goddammit. I keep dropping words from the complete sentences. Foreign languages like Merican are hard.
    Someone – I think it was Cenk Uyghur at The Young Turks – mentioned how the Republicans are successfully intimidating researchers who try to find how lies fake news and desinformation originate.
    Researchers and students are doxxed and threatened.
    The idiot in charge of the judiciary committe in the House is subpoening all work material and text messages going back to 2015 from researchers working to unravel how fake news get spread.
    It is almost as if Republicans have something to hide

  17. F.O. says

    In 1920, Italy went fascist.
    You’d think that by now there was a general agreement that “fascism bad” but nooooo.
    100 years later and we’re back.

  18. birgerjohansson says

    Hemidactylus @ 16
    Maybe just spread a rumor that Ebola has entered the states? It is not like the anti-vaxxers check their facts.

    Like “the government is covering up how Ebola spread from eskimos and other Africans”. And if Joe Biden is denying it, this will prove it is true.

    As long as there is some vaccine it would change the narrative, putting DeSantis and the other liars off-balance.
    (Naturally I would buy stocks in the relevant vaccine companies before triggering the plan- private enterprise at its finest)

  19. birgerjohansson says

    F.O. @ 18
    The answer would be ‘let’s concentrate on the autostradas and the cool neoclassic architecture the fascists built, the libruls are skewing the facts by focusing on the BAD side of fascism. Typical crybabies’.

  20. weekendeditor says

    Interesting parallel to what happened in Boston at about the same time!

    Samuel Holmes Durgin was an exponent of compulsory vaccination, Immanuel Pfeiffer was a lunatic doctor who protested against it (and so many other things), and Henning Jacobson was an otherwise reasonable Scandinavian minister who spent his time working with immigrants, but got taken in by disinformation.

    The eventual result was the Supreme Court decision Jacobson v Mass, which says that in public health crises government can compel vaccination, but only with fines or imprisonment, not force.

    I wrote a summary, and found pictures of all 3 of the above figures (who all seem inexplicably handsome):


  21. Akira MacKenzie says

    Sure they may have died from a preventable disease, BUT AT LEAST THEY DIED FREE!!!

  22. robro says

    Akira @ #23 — “Free” in the political sense, sure, but not “free” in the dollars and cents sense. Illness is an expensive hobby and death adds a lot to that cost.

  23. hemidactylus says

    Why do I get vaccinated? Because I can and it helps keep me healthy. Triggering the RFKs and Joe Rogans of the world is a happy side benefit. Fight me!…oh wait, stop oiling yourself up naked Jordan Peterson…ewwwww!

  24. torcuato says

    Akira @ #23 What do you mean “preventable”? There are tons of cases of vaccinated people catching Covid, including some in this very comments section.

  25. hemidactylus says

    @26- torcuato
    Well at least the dying part was preventable via vaccination.

  26. raven says

    CDC November 2022

    Vaccine effectiveness (VE) studies have shown that receiving 2 or 3 doses of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine can reduce severe COVID-19 outcomes.14,

    15 A study that looked at outcomes among hospitalized patients during March–January 2022 found that COVID-19 vaccination was associated with a 90% reduction in risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes, including invasive mechanical ventilation and in-hospital death across all variant periods.15
    Vaccine effectiveness did not differ by age group (18–64 years versus ≥65 years).15

    Being vaccinated lowers your risk of being mechanically ventilated or dying by around 10-fold.
    That is worth a lot for people who don’t want to die.
    Half of those who survive the vent or ECMO will be dead within a year.

    My idiot antivax neighbor is or rather was the same age as myself. He caught Covid-19 virus this winter and died two weeks later.
    I’m 4X vaccinated and still here. His wife was vaccinated and nothing happened to her, except that she is now a widow.

  27. hemidactylus says

    Raven’s @28 made me second guess my memory so I had to hunt down my vax card. Yep 5X. Vaccination was so successful I don’t really give COVID as much thought as I used to. I haven’t worn a mask in a long time except for my first pre-cataract appointment several months ago. I wore an N-95 for that. Kinda interfered with my chin placement for a retinal scan. Haven’t worn it for any other appointments or surgery.

    Wore mostly cloth masks back in the day…religiously. And eye protection. N95 was new for me as I could never find them before. I have a couple boxes if I need them. Just not into that confinement anymore.

    I have never gotten sick from COVID. Whether I ever harbored the virus I dunno. I may have just jinxed myself by saying that. If a new vax formulation is available for me this fall I will definitely get that and suffer for it the next day. Ughhh! Not fun. Second shingles shot sucked for me too, but not like Spikevax hell.

    At this point infection, for the fully vaccinated, may be its own form of booster.

    I do notice my phone’s 5G speeds are blazing fast compared to my cabled internet provider doing an Ookla Speedtest comparison. No joke! Thanks Bill Gates.

    Thanks to raven for returning here and also for posting factual info. I recall when you decided to step away for a bit.

  28. birgerjohansson says

    This variant of the Darwin Award is especially melancholy as vaccines became available with remarkable speed for a previously unknown disease.

    And even before that, social distancing was effective.

    Sweden has had received a lot of criticism for its mild distancing but when you look at the statistics for “excess mortality ” (which avoids the issue of wether the virus caused the death or just was present in someone who died of other causes) Sweden did well.

    And if even this “soft” social distancing was effective, the goons who opposed all distancing have hundreds of thousands of American lives on their conscience.

  29. hemidactylus says

    BTW my three recent polio vaccinations were a joke. No reaction at all. Flu vaccinations hurt more afterward. I wasn’t going to assume sufficient protection remained after over half a century. YMMV. The pharmacy was fine with providing the series given my stated uncertainty. Same with MMR several years ago.

  30. Ada Christine says

    we have very low rates of infection here right now so it’s not so easy to get a booster unless you work with or are a member of vulnerable populations. i did end up needing to get a dpt booster a year ago after bonking my head on the pavement and getting a nice dirty head laceration, though

  31. canadiansteve says

    we currently have an outbreak of Whooping Cough here in southern Manitoba. No surprise – it’s concentrated in communities that are vaccine hesitant. The worst part is that the worst sufferers are children, who are at the mercy of their parents’ awful choices.

  32. chrislawson says

    @30– The Darwin Award, for all its annpying smugness, at least has the virtue of making fun of people who contributed to their own demise throught stupidity. The anti-vaxxers’ stupidity contributes to the demise of many others, including vulnerable groups like the immune-compromised.

  33. John Morales says


    The Darwin Award, for all its annpying smugness, at least has the virtue of making fun of people who contributed to their own demise throught stupidity.

    And before their reproductive success.
    That little criterion (thus the “darwin award”) often seems to be left out, these days.

    (The underlying conceit being that such events improve the genomic base, which is of course bullshit)

  34. Michael says

    Hi everyone,
    Could someone direct me to recent research on Covid vaccines for non-scientists. I just ran into a Kennedy fan so I need some ammunition. I know facts are probably useless in the fight but at least I can try.

  35. Pierce R. Butler says

    Michael @ # 38 – This may have a lot more detail (and not enough summary) for your purposes, but the researcher and practicing MD who writes Respectful Insolence presents a clear array of factual arguments against antivaxxers.

    He also participates in Science-Based Medicine, which debunks antivax claims and other misinfo.

  36. silvrhalide says

    Have you ever felt like you spend all your time explaining the obvious to idiots who are going to reflexively reject the evidence anyway?

    You have just described my current job in a nutshell.

    @4 Dumb people doing dumb things.
    What gets me is that the antivaxxers & vaccine [reality] deniers frequently beg for the Covid 19 vaccination AFTER they are infected, in an ICU and about to be intubated… they clearly don’t understand how a vaccine works or science in general.

    @8 If your goal is for the kid to have half its genes from a really stupid father… sure.

    @38 try this. Not vaccine per se but the outcome of the unvaccinated, which may be more helpful.