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 but that they repealed it in 1903 (booooo) after…a debate.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The result: the Minnesota legislature repealed the mandatory vaccination law in 1903.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 But in 1903, the legislature repealed that law and made compulsory child vaccination illegal.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.