There were anti-vaccination activists in 1736

From Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography:

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 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.

Update:  I should have Googled this — Howard Markel gives a much more detailed account in the New York Times, including the relevant fact that one of the chief anti-inoculators was Franklin’s older brother, James.

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6 thoughts on “There were anti-vaccination activists in 1736

  1. Richard Séguin says:

    I’m a little confused by Franklin’s comment. When I first read it I was certain that he was referring to the cowpox inoculation. Cowpox infection induces some immunity to smallpox and is a much milder and less dangerous infection than smallpox, hence its usefulness. But then I looked at this Wikipedia article — — which seems to indicate that the association between exposure to cowpox and smallpox immunity may not have been recognized until 1770 or after. So, what was he really referring to as an inoculation?

  2. Fergal says:

    Inoculation was done with (dead?) smallpox virus it seems.

  3. Richard Séguin says:

    Oh, that’s right, I forgot about the powdered scabs! I think I heard about that originally in grade school history. Anyone dubious about the severity of infections that we have vaccinations for should look at the page that Fergal cites and contemplate the photo of the girl with smallpox.

  4. Dear Jordan,

    Sorry, but the use of the term “(anti)-vaccination” to describe this has always driven me nuts. (I first saw it in an article in the Science Times roughly ten years ago, when mass small pox vaccinations were being discussed.)

    In the context of small pox, vaccination refers to innoculation with variola vaccina (cow-pox) virus, discovered by Jenner in England well after Franklin wrote this. (The general term vaccination grew out of this particular usage, I think.)

    Franklin is referring to innoculation with small pox virus itself (inducing a — hopefully — mild case of the disease in order to render subsequent immunity), a practice that had been undertaken to help stop small pox epidemics in Europe for centuries, and was learnt (maybe?) from China. (I believe doctors were also typically innoculated against small pox; this allowed them to treat small pox cases without getting sick themselves.) It is much more dangerous than vaccination (i.e. causes many more accidental deaths; in particular, Jenner’s discovery of vaccination was not about replacing *nothing* with vaccination, but rather about replacing *innoculation* with vaccination), and so while (as Franklin argues) it is still preferrable to allowing rampant small pox to run through a community, fears of innoculation are much more legitimate than fears of vaccination (in that the cost-benefit trade-off is much worse), and so using these pre-vaccination fears to in any way legitimize contemporary anti-vaccination sentiments has always struck me as very misleading.

    Incidentally, Jenner’s case books describing how he discovered vaccination and his (many, many human) experiments with it make great reading!

    Best wishes,


  5. JSE says:

    Matt is right, of course!

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