When earlier anti-vaccination sentiments led to epidemics

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, has a very interesting and informative article that shows that the anti-vaccination movement that we currently see is not its first incarnation. It occurred before in the 19th century following the development of the smallpox vaccine.

Vaccination involves injecting a virus into the bloodstream to trick the immune system into creating antibodies. Initially, people used pus from a smallpox sore from a person with a mild case of smallpox as the immune system trigger. This practice, known at the time as ‘variolation’, was a risky and controversial method and was discarded when Edward Jenner discovered in the 1790s that giving patients cowpox achieved the same result and was much safer. This great discovery led to the eradication in the US of this deadly disease by around 1850.

But Mihn says that in an eerie parallel to today, the absence of the disease led to a sense of complacency among some that vaccinations were not necessary and were even harmful and led to the kind of libertarian arguments we hear today that parents should have the choice of whether to vaccinate or not, and that the government was violating the freedom and liberties of people by requiring vaccination.

These skeptics found a leader: William Tebb, a British reformer, activist and gadfly who was well known for leading a high-profile fight against compulsory vaccination laws in Britain. He arrived in New York City in 1879, and helped spur the formation of the Anti-Vaccination Society of America, which soon became a formidable political force, along with other similar societies.

The early anti-vaxxers deployed a wide range of arguments to press their case. Tebb claimed, all evidence to the contrary, that 80 percent of smallpox cases affected people who had been vaccinated. He also alleged, facts notwithstanding, that 25,000 children were “slaughtered” each year in Britain as a consequence of compulsory vaccination programs.

Such revelations raised fears that vaccines could end up causing harm. But it wasn’t autism that worried people then. Rather, as the anti-vaccinationist Dr. J. F. Banton warned, vaccination could introduce a “bioplasm” into the bloodstream, “carrying with it all the vices, passions and diseases of the cow.”

The anti-vaccination forces believed that diseases found in cattle and other livestock — tuberculosis and above all, syphilis — would make the jump to humans.

This was largely baseless. Nonetheless, immunization rates declined.

And sure enough, between 1898 and 1904 smallpox epidemics broke out in cities, with New York being hardest hit. This led to forced vaccination programs and demands for the government to exert more quality control on the production of vaccines so that they were rigorously tested for safety. The success of these moves led to the eradication of major diseases, including polio, and also led to the demise of the anti-vaccination movement. It became the consensus that vaccination of all children was everyone’s obligation, and as moarscienceplz’s personal experience shows, schools routinely vaccinated all children or required it.

Until now.

Being largely epidemic-free for so long has once again caused complacency and baseless fears about vaccines to return with a vengeance. People may think that measles is nowhere near as dangerous as smallpox and they would be right. But measles in not always just a rash and a fever that passes. It can also lead to pneumonia and brain damage and death.

It would be tragic to think that it requires yet another major outbreak of disease to convince people of the benefits of vaccination.


  1. says

    I notice that the dates on those epidemics are just before the Supreme Court ruled that requiring compulsory vaccinations was constitutional, so I bet there was a connection. See Jacobsen v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905). It is a bit hard, though, to read through the turgid prose they used back then for court opinions.

  2. Mario says

    I have to point out an error, one you usually hear from anti-vaxxers: vaccines are not injected into the bloodstream (intravenous). When injected (don’t forget the oral polio vaccine!) they injected into a muscle, usually the shouldermuscle, which is called intramuscular.

  3. says

    If the anti-vaxxers weren’t so ignorant, they’d be using thalidomide to “show the dangers of vaccines”. Unlike their own claims and the case about smallpox outlined above, thalidomide actually has detrimental effects on children.

    Then again, if the anti-vaxxers weren’t so ignorant, they wouldn’t be anti-vaxxers.

  4. thebookofdave says

    Bioplasm’s threat of infecting humans with common livestock diseases may have always been unfounded, but vaccine paranoia still leads to elevated risk of foot-in-mouth.

  5. Mano Singham says


    That was pretty funny. I knew it was satire pretty quickly and was amused that he had to explicitly say so at the end.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Though I have little (~0) sympathy for the anti-vaxers, they can claim one notable historical advocate: the young Benjamin Franklin was run out of Boston by Cotton Mather (yes, the Cotton Mather) for his (Franklin’s) public ridicule of the variolation project sponsored by Mather.

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