You may have noticed that I spent the past few months taking a look at medical advancements against smallpox that took place in the Regency era. This third post is the final one on this topic. After learning about the proven success of the new cow-pox-based method of vaccination against smallpox that was advocated and promoted by Edward Jenner, I was surprised to learn that acceptance of this medical miracle was not universal. Opposition to this procedure was significant. Although the term “anti-vaxxer” is a modern moniker, the degree of suspicion and hostility toward vaccination demonstrates a profound parallel between modern people and our Regency-era counterparts.
The basis of their skepticism was three-fold. First, although Jenner had demonstrated the efficacy of the procedure in preventing a serious case of smallpox, he could not explain the mechanics behind it. Understanding this mystery was still over half a century away, with no explanation presenting itself until the 1860s when Louis Pasteur’s experiments shed light on such microorganisms as bacteria and the variola virus responsible for smallpox. It would not be until the 1890s that germ theory would be widely accepted.
A second challenge to acceptance of vaccination was found in religious views. Disease had long been held to be a punishment meted out by God, and there were some who declared that protecting oneself against smallpox was circumventing God’s wrath. Others pointed to biblical references to the “Mark of the Beast” making a reasoned connection between the process of taking diseased matter from an animal and intentionally infecting an otherwise healthy person as a fulfillment of ancient prophecy regarding that mark. The fact that the subject retained a small scar where they had been vaccinated was deemed to support this claim.
The third issue is one that is strongly echoed in modern anti-vax arguments. That is the question of side effects and vaccine injury. The previous form of inoculation against smallpox, variolation, was associated with a 1-3% death rate, and persons who had undergone the procedure actively shed the smallpox virus for several weeks setting up the potential for a recipient to spread the disease. Vaccination using the cowpox strain was much safer, with death from the procedure being extremely rare, although not unheard of. Most who received it suffered from a mild fever and discomfort for a few weeks and recovered with no further issues. There were, however, some who developed long-term symptoms that were attributed to the vaccination. The most common of these were cognitive issues observed in children whose level of intelligence suffered a decline after vaccination.
Cases of vaccine injury were documented and spread abroad using the same means as vaccination instructions–pamphlets. By the Regency era, there was an increasing literacy rate in England, meaning that the distribution of information in written form reached not just the upper-class, but the middle and lower classes as well. One of the most popular pamphlets was written by Dr William Rowley. Titled Cow-Pox Inoculation no security against smallpox infection (1805), (download the pamphlet at the link.) He, along with a handful of others such as Dr. Benjamin Moseley, actively and fiercely led the opposition to vaccination. Vaccination remained controversial well into the Victorian era, partially due to mandates making vaccination compulsory.
As always, we would love to hear your thoughts. Are you surprised to learn about this Regency-era anti-vax movement?