Regency Era Opposition to Vaccination, by Diana Oaks

Regency Era Opposition to Vaccination, by Diana Oaks

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.

This shocking depiction of the “vaccination monster” consuming babies and ejecting them with horns was one poster used in the fight against vaccination. (Image in the public domain.)

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 Cow Pock poster shows the “Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!” (Image in the public domain.)

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.

The Cover image for Dr William Rowley’s pamphlet, “The Ox Faced Boy” depicts a vaccine-injured child. (Image in the public domain.)

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?

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March 17, 2022 8:24 PM

I hadn’t known about this. Thanks for sharing!

Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
March 17, 2022 5:06 PM

Thank you for sharing this fascianting post!

March 13, 2022 8:50 PM

Thank you for sharing this. Such a timely (controversial) topic. Like with Ms Thomas, I feel it should be the decision of the person. Each body chemistry is so different (even with closest kins), that the individual should make a well-informed decision.

Mary Langton
Mary Langton
March 13, 2022 9:12 AM

In 1954 when I was 17, I became a pre-school nurse ready to start training when I reached 18.
During that preliminary period we were required to have all necessary vaccinations etc.
Two days after my smallpox vaccination my arm swelled up to twice its size, I got a humongous headache and I couldn’t turn my head it was SO painful. I also had a raging temperature!
My sister who was fully qualified, thought I had meningitis and sent for the family doctor … turned out I had COWPOX !!! He reckoned I had never ever come into contact with smallpox because if I had I wouldn’t be here. I was so vulnerable to the ‘pox’ that even the vaccination had endangered my life and it was good that I was young and fit and able to fight it!
I still have pock marks on my cheek where I scratched a couple of the scabs. I’m 84 now.

Gianna Thomas
March 8, 2022 12:09 AM

Thank you, Diana for the informative post. Who knows. I may write a story that includes smallpox, etc.

My father was a general surgeon, and my mother was a nurse. They, of course, worked with antibiotics, vaccines, etc. Some people need the antibiotics, etc. while others don’t do so well. For myself, I do better with natural medications such as Homeopathic remedies. I also use essential oils. For me, this works best as my body sometimes does not work well with what is helpful for other people. I think we need to know our bodies and have a good idea of what they can take and what they can’t handle very well. After all, taking a medication carries risk, but not taking one also carries risk. Each person has to determine how much risk they are willing to take. I think having medications available for those who want to take them is important, and I also think that each person should have the freedom to choose what is best for them. Being knowledgeable about any treatment is preferred so each person can make informed decisions.

Gianna Thomas
March 8, 2022 6:56 AM
Reply to  Diana J Oaks

You’re welcome, Diana, and I agree that it is a challenge.

March 7, 2022 11:49 AM

Very interesting and timely. We always had vaccinations from when we were very young and it was vital.

Linda A.
Linda A.
March 7, 2022 9:46 AM

It doesn’t surprise me at all. It is human nature to dislike change, especially when linked to a fear of the unknown. Like now, they probably saw people die from not being vaccinated, and they also probably saw the repercussions to others for being vaccinated (vaccine injury). On top of that, none of us like being “told” what we should or shouldn’t do to our bodies, so I have no doubt whatsoever that there were people in the Regency period against it, especially if it was being forced upon them.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
March 7, 2022 9:07 AM

Yes I would think they would want to be healthy! Cowpox sounds terrible!

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