How the World’s First Anti-Vax Movement Started with the First Vaccine for Smallpox in 1796, and Spread Fears of People Getting Turned into Half-Cow Babies

A car­toon from a Decem­ber 1894 anti-vac­ci­na­tion pub­li­ca­tion (Cour­tesy of The His­tor­i­cal Med­ical Library of The Col­lege of Physi­cians of Philadel­phia)

For well over a cen­tu­ry peo­ple have queued up to get vac­ci­nat­ed against polio, small­pox, measles, mumps, rubel­la, the flu or oth­er epi­dem­ic dis­eases. And they have done so because they were man­dat­ed by schools, work­places, armed forces, and oth­er insti­tu­tions com­mit­ted to using sci­ence to fight dis­ease. As a result, dead­ly viral epi­demics began to dis­ap­pear in the devel­oped world. Indeed, the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple now protest­ing manda­to­ry vac­ci­na­tions were them­selves vac­ci­nat­ed (by man­date) against polio, small­pox, measles, mumps, rubel­la, etc., and hard­ly any of them have con­tract­ed those once-com­mon dis­eases. The his­tor­i­cal argu­ment for vac­cines may not be the most sci­en­tif­ic (the sci­ence is read­i­ly avail­able online). But his­to­ry can act as a reli­able guide for under­stand­ing pat­terns of human behav­ior.

In 1796, Scot­tish physi­cian Edward Jen­ner dis­cov­ered how an injec­tion of cow­pox-infect­ed human bio­log­i­cal mate­r­i­al could make humans immune to small­pox. For the next 100 years after this break­through, resis­tance to inoc­u­la­tion grew into “an enor­mous mass move­ment,” says Yale his­to­ri­an of med­i­cine Frank Snow­den. “There was a rejec­tion of vac­ci­na­tion on polit­i­cal grounds that it was wide­ly con­sid­ered as anoth­er form of tyran­ny.”

Fears that injec­tions of cow­pox would turn peo­ple into mutants with cow-like growths were sat­i­rized as ear­ly as 1802 by car­toon­ist James Gilray (below). While the anti-vac­ci­na­tion move­ment may seem rel­a­tive­ly new, the resis­tance, refusal, and denial­ism are as old as vac­ci­na­tions to infec­tious dis­ease in the West.

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

“In the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, British peo­ple final­ly had access to the first vac­cine in his­to­ry, one that promised to pro­tect them from small­pox, among the dead­liest dis­eases in the era,” writes Jess McHugh at The Wash­ing­ton Post. Small­pox killed around 4,000 peo­ple a year in the UK and left hun­dreds more dis­fig­ured or blind­ed. Nonethe­less, “many Britons were skep­ti­cal of the vac­cine.… The side effects they dread­ed were far more ter­ri­fy­ing: blind­ness, deaf­ness, ulcers, a grue­some skin con­di­tion called ‘cow­pox mange’ — even sprout­ing hoofs and horns.” Giv­ing a per­son one dis­ease to fright­en off anoth­er one prob­a­bly seemed just as absurd a notion as turn­ing into a human/cow hybrid.

Jen­ner’s method, called var­i­o­la­tion, was out­lawed in 1840 as safer vac­ci­na­tions replaced it. By 1867, all British chil­dren up to age 14 were required by law to be vac­ci­nat­ed against small­pox. Wide­spread out­rage result­ed, even among promi­nent physi­cians and sci­en­tists, and con­tin­ued for decades. “Every day the vac­ci­na­tion laws remain in force,” wrote sci­en­tist Alfred Rus­sel Wal­lace in 1898, “par­ents are being pun­ished, infants are being killed.” In fact, it was small­pox claim­ing lives, “more than 400,000 lives per year through­out the 19th cen­tu­ry, accord­ing to the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion,” writes Eliz­a­beth Earl at The Atlantic“Epi­dem­ic dis­ease was a fact of life at the time.” And so it is again. Covid has killed almost 800,000 peo­ple in the U.S. alone over the past two years.


Then as now, med­ical quack­ery played its part in vac­cine refusal — in this case a much larg­er part. “Nev­er was the lie of ‘the good old days’ more clear than in med­i­cine,” Greig Wat­son writes at BBC News. “The 1841 UK cen­sus sug­gest­ed a third of doc­tors were unqual­i­fied.” Com­mon caus­es of ill­ness in an 1848 med­ical text­book includ­ed “wet feet,” “pas­sion­ate fear or rage,” and “dis­eased par­ents.” Among the many fiery lec­tures, car­i­ca­tures, and pam­phlets issued by oppo­nents of vac­ci­na­tion, one 1805 tract by William Row­ley, a mem­ber of the Roy­al Col­lege of Physi­cians, alleged that the injec­tion of cow­pox could mar an entire blood­line. “Who would mar­ry into any fam­i­ly, at the risk of their off­spring hav­ing filthy beast­ly dis­eases?” it asked hys­ter­i­cal­ly.

Then, as now, reli­gion was a moti­vat­ing fac­tor. “One can see it in bib­li­cal terms as human beings cre­at­ed in the image of God,” says Snow­den. “The vac­ci­na­tion move­ment inject­ing into human bod­ies this mate­r­i­al from an infe­ri­or ani­mal was seen as irre­li­gious, blas­phe­mous and med­ical­ly wrong.” Grant­ed, those who vol­un­teered to get vac­ci­nat­ed had to place their faith in the insti­tu­tions of sci­ence and gov­ern­ment. After med­ical scan­dals of the recent past like the Tuskegee exper­i­ments or Thalido­mide, that can be a big ask. In the 19th cen­tu­ry, says med­ical his­to­ri­an Kristin Hussey, “peo­ple were ask­ing ques­tions about rights, espe­cial­ly work­ing-class rights. There was a sense the upper class were try­ing to take advan­tage, a feel­ing of dis­trust.”

The deep dis­trust of insti­tu­tions now seems intractable and ful­ly endem­ic in our cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate, and much of it may be ful­ly war­rant­ed. But no virus has evolved — since the time of the Jen­ner’s first small­pox inoc­u­la­tion — to care about our pol­i­tics, reli­gious beliefs, or feel­ings about author­i­ty or indi­vid­ual rights. With­out wide­spread vac­ci­na­tion, virus­es are more than hap­py to exploit our lack of immu­ni­ty, and they do so with­out pity or com­punc­tion.

via Wash­ing­ton Post

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Dying in the Name of Vac­cine Free­dom

How Vac­cines Improved Our World In One Graph­ic

How Do Vac­cines (Includ­ing the COVID-19 Vac­cines) Work?: Watch Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions

Elvis Pres­ley Gets the Polio Vac­cine on The Ed Sul­li­van Show, Per­suad­ing Mil­lions to Get Vac­ci­nat­ed (1956)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Sackerson says:

    Does this imply that there are no rea­son­able grounds for con­cern about the mRNA injec­tions invent­ed to com­bat Covid?

    Please direct us to evi­dence to show that these nov­el treat­ments (a) are as safe as vac­cines that have been test­ed and cleared for med­ical use in the ordi­nary way, and (b) that they offer effec­tive pro­tec­tion against the virus to the recip­i­ent, and help pre­vent onward trans­mis­sion to oth­ers.

    Or are we sim­ply expect­ed to sub­mit to group­think? Per­haps a test for that will be whether you allow this com­ment to appear.

    I write as some­one who has been ‘dou­ble-jabbed’ and is about to get the ‘boost­er’ — as a per­son­al cal­cu­la­tion of the bal­ance of risks — but feel that there are risks which have been down­played (and ben­e­fits that have been exag­ger­at­ed) under the pres­sure to nudge us into a rushed mass accep­tance of a still-exper­i­men­tal inter­ven­tion.

    You men­tion Thalido­mide: coin­ci­den­tal­ly, this very week sees the 60th anniver­sary of West Ger­man pedi­a­tri­cian Widukind Lenz’s pub­lic report of the asso­ci­a­tion of the drug with pho­comelia cas­es in Ham­burg. In that case, the print media were quick to pub­lish, start­ing with the Welt Am Son­ntag.* How dif­fer­ent from today, with wide­spread sup­pres­sion of news and views that do not fit the offi­cial nar­ra­tive.


  • Paula Goodale says:

    The ear­li­er prac­tice of innoculation/variolation was intro­duced into the UK by Lady Mary Wort­ley Mon­tagu c.1720, after see­ing the prac­tice whilst resid­ing in the embassy in Turkey. There is a good account of the med­ical and pop­u­lar resis­tance in this Wikipedia page.

  • Sackerson says:

    I am sor­ry to return to this late, but you have not addressed my ques­tions and in the time between what you have said and now there seem to be grow­ing con­cerns. On con­tentious issues such as this Wikipedia have a record of ten­den­tious­ness, but even Face­book and Twit­ter’s bul­warks of cen­sor­ship are begin­ning to crum­ble.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.