On October 27, 1885, some twenty people (plus a few reporters) gathered at the home of Dr. R.A. Gunn on East 22nd street in Manhattan for an inaugural meeting of the American Anti-Vaccination Society.
The group’s stated mission: “arousing the public to the evils of vaccination.”
Their key arguments: Vaccines are ineffective at preventing disease. Worse yet, they contain deadly toxins. Health officials are motivated by financial profits; and doctors know they don’t work, but are too afraid to speak out against the consensus. “Dr. Gunn thought the practice more of a barbarism than bloodletting,” the New York Times reported. “[He said] that it merely instanced to what length public opinion based on a fallacy would go.”
Despite the meeting’s small turnout, these were not uncommon opinions at the time. In fact, the opposition to compulsory vaccination during the small pox epidemic at the turn of the previous century was a full-blown movement — one that I think surpassed anything we’re seeing today. The New York society had corollaries in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Terre Haute, Southern California, Montreal, and the U.K. (this last one had the most extensive and artful propaganda, by far). And in each of these pockets, members employed the same tactics favored by members of the current anti-vaccination movement. That is, they spread misinformation, stirred baseless fears, and overrode scientific evidence through sheer force of will.
A few examples: routinely demanding the repeal of compulsory vaccination laws — at public meetings, in protest marches and when talking to reporters — and insisting on equal recognition of homeopathic treatments for smallpox; in court, compelling at least some unwitting judges to rule against health officials and then fighting to block payments to vaccine makers; spreading rumors that the lymph being used to make the vaccines was untested and impure, and that vaccines were responsible for infantile paralysis.
For the most part, the movement consisted of organized societies that produced pamphlets, professional journals, and at least one “Anti-Vaccination Hymn.” But it also had an underground element that offered falsified vaccination certificates and guys who could create fake vaccination scars on the skin, so that the unvaccinated could still attend school, etc.
And as the smallpox epidemic persisted and government officials (rightly!) dug their heels in on compulsory vaccination laws, protests deteriorated into active resistance. Rumors abounded of health officials barreling doors in, or chasing resistors through the streets (or occasionally across rooftops), and wrestling them to the ground so as to literally force the injections. There were riots in Brazil and Montreal. And in the barrio of Harlem, would-be vaccinators were run out by angry mobs.
In other words, it all got very ugly.
Nestled deep within the rumor-mongering and pamphlet printing and protest organizing of the zealots, were the much more common actions of average folks who were simply afraid for their own families. This from 1891:
At the meeting of the Health Board last night, Dr. Van Duyne reported that if he had not taken a lady of his family along with him on his vaccinating excursion, he would have found it impossible to overcome the scruples of the Italian mothers to the treatment of their offspring. The houses where there are patients have been quarantined by the health authorities. The inspectors find it hard to compel the Italians to observe the quarantine, and the police had to be called in yesterday to save the Inspectors at one place from violence.
Here’s a more comical one: In May of 1901, the New York City Department of Health sent some 40 doctors out to vaccinate “every policeman in New York.” The officers were, in some cases at least, as full of fear and obstinance as the Italian mothers had been:
… Big Tim Leary, who is by far the largest man of the Oak Street force had his turn. As a small drop of blood appeared on his arm, he turned white and sank in a chair, greatly to the delight of the others in the waiting line. About the same time a scuffle was heard in the back room, and one of the sergeants on going out thither to investigate saw [an officer] dragging towards the scene of vaccination a young patrolman called Percy Crane…. he had found the younger officer hid in a closet at the rear of the station.
There had been some plans afoot to formally resist the doctors’ efforts. But those plans dissipated quickly, thanks to a bit of serendipity:
Opposition to the vaccinators developed at this station was short lived. For as the little knot of about a dozen objectors were discussing the various plans for disobeying the mandate of Commissioner Murphy, a negro walked into the house with an advanced case of the disease… Joseph Hunt of 141 West 27th Street was the patient. He told the sergeant that he felt sick all over. ‘I shouldn’t wondah if I had the small pox, Sah,’ he concluded.
One glance convinced Dr. Shields of the Department of Health that Hunt had made no mistake, and he sent him over to the reception hospital in an ambulance. And the men who had been questioning the authority of Colonel Murphy to order them to be vaccinated against their wills… without exception walked into line and rolled up their sleeves without another word.
It was at a meeting of the Brooklyn chapter in 1901 that Montague R. Leverson, one of the New York chapter’s lead quacks appears to have emerged. On January 6th of that year a small group (just nine men and one boy, plus seven reporters) gathered to talk about the “groundless smallpox scare raised by the board of health,” and to discuss how they might “punish the lawless and tyrannical conduct of said board in breaking into houses of citizens and forcibly injecting into their blood the puterifying matter of a sore.” One attendee advocated the use of pistols against any doctor wielding a needle. For his part, Leverson encouraged people to “resist with force” the vaccinators who invaded their homes. He claimed to have treated 30 recent cases of smallpox, and in each instance to have flouted the law that required him to report those cases to the Board of Health. “My first duty is to my patients,” he told the New York Times. “If I reported a case of small pox to board of health, it would step in, remove patient, and his chances for life would become fully 50% less.”
A year later, Leverson sent a letter to the same paper, entitled “Vaccination’s Death Roll,” that included hundreds of alleged vaccine-related deaths. As the editors pointed out, though, the list was total bunk:
It is evident that the compiler has not only accepted as true every explicit statement whatever its source, that a death which followed vaccination was caused by vaccination… but there are dozens and dozens of cases in which date, name or place is lacking, not a few where two of these details are not given and several where all three are missing.
It turns out that rational, science-minded folks were as disdainful of the anti-vaxxers back then as they are today. Here’s an editorial from 10/28/85 that could have been penned yesterday:
In ordinary times a person who professes himself opposed to vaccination and talks and writes against it may contribute to the amusement of his neighbors. In spite of his absurdity on this point he may be a good citizen and upon most matters a man of sense, although it is hard to believe that a man who cherishes a belief in spite of an overwhelming mass of testimony against it had the absence of any evidence whatever in its favor can deserve to have his judgment trusted about anything.
But when an epidemic of smallpox is actually imminent, a man who publicly opposes vaccination is no longer a harmless eccentric. He is simply a public enemy who is doing his utmost to expose the community he lives in to a frightful pestilence, and there is no other way of treating him than that which is appropriate to an evildoer…
A man who cannot see that the connection between the advance of vaccination and decline of small pox is causal is simply devoid of the reasoning powers which entitle him to form an opinion which anybody is bound to respect…
That a man is incapable of arguing from premises to conclusions is no reason why he should be exempted from a precaution taken in the interest of his neighbors as well as himself. Neither ignorance nor imbecility can justify any person in establishing himself as a distributing center of pestilence.
In the end, of course, reason triumphed and Small Pox was defeated. But even as late in the game as 1927, the Anti-Vaccination League was still having a measurable effect on health outcomes:
A statement by American Association for Medical Progress says it is significant that in both the U.S. and England, small pox is most menacing where anti-vaccination sentiment is strongest.
The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia has a fantastic website dedicated to the history of vaccines. And I would highly recommend Michael Willrich’s incredible book for anyone who wants an in-depth look at the Small Pox story. Also: one more pic, because they’re kind of lovely, in their own awful way.