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Home » The long history of the antivaccination movement–plus their theme song

The long history of the antivaccination movement–plus their theme song

The rousing anti-vaccination hymn.

This week was a bit depressing to be pro science (and by association, pro-vaccine). As I discussed, Katie Couric employed the full false balance fallacy to the extreme to try to “prove” that the Gardasil vaccine was somehow dangerous, based on the anecdotal, and ultimately unscientific, stories. That’s not science. That’s not good journalism. And that goes against real science and real clinical trials which, startlingly, comes to a conclusion that Gardasil is safe and very effective.

Oh, then in response to the intense criticism, Couric doubled-down on the false balance

I needed something to mock the antivaccination movement, something to remind me that these people are, in general, crackpots of the highest order. 

I had vaguely understood that the anti-vaccination movement had a long history, but before the “vaccinations cause autism” fraud, I just lumped the anti-vaccination lunatics with the anti-fluoridation luddites. Well, I would be wrong. The Anti-Vaccination Society of America was active in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, along with related and competing anti-vaccine groups. The Anti-Vaccination Society of America was run by a Frank D. Blue, who was secretary of the society and did most of its day-to-day work. According to an article in the History of Vaccines website (run by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia),

Blue corresponded widely with other anti-vaccination societies, including the American Anti-Vaccination League in New York and societies in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, and England. Moreover, he seems to have been involved with a collection of other reform groups active at the time, including anti-vivisectionists (who often objected to the idea that rabies was an infectious disease), temperance advocates, vegetarians, homeopaths, phrenologists, “scientific palmists,” and a society for the prevention of premature burial (that latter was a particular interest of British anti-vaccinator William Tebb).

Wow, that reads like the All-Star League of alternative medicine and anti-scientific beliefs. It is ironic that the same groups, 100 or more years later, still try to push the same vaccine denialism on the general population. OK, temperance (no alcohol) might be a good thing for some people, but the temperance movement of that time period was very religious and was a consequence of the social circumstances of the day.

Similar to today’s anti-vaccination movement, the League’s activists also tried to influence news editors and the conversation about vaccines (at that time, the smallpox vaccination was widely available, even through mail order).

One document in the collection is a clipping of an article by Blue (no date) in Vaccination about effective ways that activists could respond to the resurgence of smallpox epidemics that occurred around the turn of the century. Blue says that he’s taking direction from a report of the American Humane Society and advocates measures including widespread circulation of the anti-vaccination periodical Vaccination (including specifically to newspaper editors and judges), establishing more anti-vaccination societies across the country, distributing tracts and other propaganda to the public, sponsoring prizes for essays and fiction on the “evils of vaccination,” and establishing a “press writing corps to write newspapers regarding vaccination facts.” Not mentioned in Blue’s essay is lobbying lawmakers, though in the collection is an English pledge intended for legislators to sign: “Will you vote AGAINST the enforcement of the Compulsory Clauses of the Vaccination Acts?…Will you vote AGAINST the practice of Vaccinating Children born in the Workhouse…” (dated 189X).

He appears to have followed the news of smallpox outbreaks around the country and then written to local newspapers and judges to encourage them to resist public calls for vaccination in response to the outbreaks. Oddly, there’s no documentation of the 1900 lawsuit that Blue brought against the Terra Haute school board, attempting to invalidate the exclusion of his son from school for not having been vaccinated. The suit went to the Indiana Supreme Court, which found that the school board was justified in excluding unvaccinated children during epidemics (Blue v Beach).

Smallpox is a horrible disease with a fatality rate anywhere from 25-100%; survivors almost always had some lasting reminder of the disease from significant scarring to blindness. Smallpox is also implicated in the destruction of many pre-Columbian civilizations when white Europeans carried the disease from Europe to the Americas, where the disease was completely unknown, and there was little or no immunity to the disease.

Smallpox vaccination is probably the first one developed in human history, possibly dating back to the Ming Dynasty in China. But the modern development of the smallpox vaccine dates to 1798, when Edward Jenner developed an inoculation using cowpox (the smallpox variant that afflicts cattle).

Our modern antivaccine crackpots are definitely too young to remember the scourges of smallpox. Why is that? Well, I’m probably in the last group of adult Americans who received the smallpox vaccine, because we stopped vaccinating for smallpox since it was eradicated in 1979. And by “eradicated,” I mean gone as a threat to humanity (with an important caveat that the virus still exists in biological war stocks of several countries). However, giving credit where credit is due, vaccines absolutely ended smallpox. Not better food. Not better sanitation. Just vaccines.

I’ll bet if smallpox was still a threat to humanity, and since it killed some 300-500 million (yes million) human beings in the 20th Century (that’s actually ¾ of the 20th Century since it was eradicated in 1979), antivaccinationists would be laughed out of the discussion.

We often read that the proliferation of information on the Internet helps to amplify anti-vaccination arguments and misinformation about vaccines. That, of course, is very likely true. But the collection of materials in our archives is evidence of a thriving public information campaign around the turn of the century, with widespread circulation and seemingly effective public relations strategies (if it’s fair to use that term ahistorically).


And here’s that theme song:

Brothers in heart united,/Raise we our voice today/Now let our vow be plighted,/To sweep this law away./Say shall our little children/Suffer around us still,/Curs’d by a cruel custom,/Doomed by a despot will.

Brothers, we’re marching onward/Progress lies on before;/Fain would the hand of terror/Close up the burning door./Seizing our new-born infants,/Blighting their lives with pain;/Filling their veins with poison,/Tainting each tender brain

Brothers, our fathers suffered,/Died that we might be free;/Died that a faith unfettered,/Right of each soul should be,/Yet doth a dark superstition/Peril the health of all;/Built on the sands of error,/Pray we it soon may fall!

Catchy. Creepy. And modern vaccine deniers use the same rhetoric 100 years later. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Key citations:

Michael Simpson

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