When Ben Franklin campaigned against inoculation

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Cotton Mather

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Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

The roots of American anti-vaccination ideology go way back to 1721, when a smallpox epidemic threatened Boston. Cotton Mather, the Hub’s leading minister, had learned about inoculation — infecting healthy people with a mild case of the disease, which had been done in Africa and Asia for centuries. Finding one doctor willing to try out the treatment, Mather got a group of his fellow divines to advocate on its behalf.

In response, a bunch of Anglican men about town, eager to stick pins into the Puritan establishment, underwrote a new newspaper edited by master printer James Franklin and modeled on Addison and Steele’s vivacious London daily, The SpectatorThe New-England Courant was all about attacking inoculation, and the perpetrators, who came to be known as the Hell-Fire Club, enraged Mather’s aged father Increase with the likes of the following, from “A Dialogue between Clergyman and a Layman“:

Cl. But I find, all the Rakes in Town are against Inoculation, and that induces me to believe it is a right Way.

Laym. Most of the Ministers are for it, and that induces me to think it is from the D___l, for he often makes use of good Men as Instruments to obtrude his Delusions on the World.

Cynically, the Courant stoked pious anxiety that it was against God’s Providence to intervene in human health in such a way. Franklin’s teenaged brother Benjamin, then anonymously writing his satirical Silence Dogood letters for the paper, pitched in with one (#9) condemning the hypocrisy of clergymen. In the end, the powers-that-be ran the Franklins out of town, and Ben was forced to make his fortune in Philadelphia.

The idea that malignant forces are behind preventive health measures recurred in the 1950s, when right-wing activists, including the leading fundamentalist preacher Carl McIntire, portrayed water fluoridation as communist. Their paranoia was caricatured in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, where nuclear doomsday comes about because of an American general’s conviction that fluoridation is a “Commie conspiracy” to introduce “a foreign substance…into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice.” The other day, 84-year-old Pat Robertson harked back to those days by linking vaccination to fluoridation.

Of the politicians seeking to make hay with anti-vaxxers during the current outbreak of measles, Rand Paul is the true anti-establishmentarian, his opposition based on libertarian hostility to government mandates rather than concern about the treatment’s safety. Chris Christie would appear to be more the political opportunist.

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin lost a young son to smallpox after he failed to have him inoculated. In his Autobiography, the greatest American experimental scientist of his day took the position that the risk of harm through inoculation was less than the risk of getting a full-fledged case of the disease, and urged parents not to make the same mistake he did.

“I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation,” Franklin wrote. Whether he also regretted his youthful part in the New-England Courant‘s pseudo-populist anti-inoculation campaign he didn’t say.

  • Jack

    Interesting all the way through. The Franklin story is amazingly relevant for our time. Thanks…

  • Silence Dogood

    It is inaccurate and unfair to characterize Rand Paul as opposed to vaccination, he is pro-vaccination. He is merely opposed to the government forcing people against their will to inoculate.

  • Isn’t that exactly what I wrote, Silence?

  • Larry

    Rand Paul is against government doing anything significant. The man is a waste of a public office position (like his father before him) The desires of people who oppose vaccination are not worth creating public health risks. They cannot be taken seriously. If you have a moral or ideological opposition to vaccination, tough crap. People don’t need to risk their lives for the ignorant paranoia of others.

    Libertarianism is brain dead sociopathy in political form. Public protection gives way to might makes right. Getting a nasty disease and spreading it to others is somehow freedom of choice. Not counting the people you infect. Libertarianism means never being answerable for your acts unless compelled to.

  • Julian Penrod

    Another vicious hatchet job against those who refuse to be pushed around and forced to engage in what looks very much like a clandestine attempt at everything from eugenics to poisoning the population to make an entirely new market for drug company chemicals.
    The article describes the previous situation as being politically motivated, “looking to stick pins in the Puritan establishment”. Parents who refuse to have their kids vaccinated do not have a political agenda because they do not have a position in society to profit from a political confrontation. And it is not so much a lack of education. Many if not most without education tend to look on those with a lot of letters after their name almost worshipfully, believing whatever they say without question. And note the unquestioning nature of the approach of vaccine supporters to the measles “outbreak”. Nowhere has there been anything like absolute proof that an “outbreak” is even taking place! Ordering you to believe there are this many people infected is not “proof”. Frankly, even giving names wouldn’t be proof! Even showing pictures of the virus would not be proof, since the pictures could come from anywhere! There is no proof an”outbreak” is taking place!
    Just as there was no proof of mass production of banned weapons systems in Iraq!
    Just as there was no reason to trust thalidomide, fen-phen or Vioxx!
    Just like there is no proof of an unfounded, gratuitous ulterior motive in being suspicious of vaccines! Yes, many may avoid vaccines because they mistrust “government”, but, face it, they have more than enough reason to accept that “government” is not there to help the “rank and file”! The Vietnam War, Watergate, Abscam, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, banned weapons systems in Iraq, “Operation Fast and Furious”. There is not a word “government” says that can be trusted, there is not a thing “government” does that isn’t a criminal attempt at making the obscenely rich obscenely richer.
    And “government” and”medicine” have a long history of violating the trust and welfare of the people.
    Like Laurette Bender carrying out “psychological research” on children as young as 3, including “diagnosing” them as schizophrenic if they didn’t like having their skulls squeezed and subjecting them all to electroshock therapy!
    Or “Dr,” Hideyo Noguchi, of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical research, injecting 150 people, adults and children, with syphilis to “study its effects”!
    Or “Dr.” Arthur Wentworth performing unnecessary spinal taps on 29 children, without their parents’ consent or even knowledge, to see if it would harm the children to perform spinal taps on them!
    Or “Dr.” W. Paul Havens who, seeking a cure for hepatitis, first infected mental patients at Middletown and Norwich, Connecticut asylums, then experimented on them!
    Or staff of the University of California, during the Sixties, studying the blood pressure of newborns by immersing them waist deep in ice water.
    Or what came to be known as “The Monster Study”, in which Wendell John and Mary Tudor criticized orphans with good speech patterns, saying they spoke poorly, resulting, in the end, with many of them actually developing speech impediments!
    Or a team, including Jonas Salk, testing out flu vaccines by first infecting mental patients at an insane asylum in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
    Or the CIA conducting “Operation Midnight Climax”, which consisted of using prostitutes to lure men to warehouses where they were plied with drugs like LSD, to study the effects the drugs could have and to assess the efficacy of blackmailing procedures!
    Or the “government” testing biological warfare techniques by releasing a pneumonia like pathogen over San Francisco from Navy planes.
    Or the “government” testing biological warfare techniques by releasing mosquitoes infected with yellow fever and dengue fever in Savannah. Georgia and Avon Park, Florida!
    Or the “government” distributing to 800 pregnant women what were termed “vitamin drinks”, but which were really laced with radioactive iron, leading to many babies dying and the women experiencing everything from rashes to tooth loss!
    Remember, no more than half the “medical” schools anymore
    And, face it, seeing this proven collected connivery against the best interests of the public yet still saying it’s the public’s fault for not trusting the crooks and liars in “government” and “medicine” is not necessarily a sign of eminent ethic or decency.

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  • Larry

    Julian, why do you want to see dead children?

    ” what looks very much like a clandestine attempt at everything from eugenics to poisoning the population to make an entirely new market for drug company chemicals.”

    This merely shows how half-baked your thought processes are. Vaccines are about the least profitable drugs for companies to make. One of the most successful, the polio vaccine was never even patented. Vaccines are only used no more than once or twice, with no repeat customers over time. Once vaccinated, never necessary again. Even worse, more successful use of them means total eradication of a given ailment. A market which has diminishing returns built into it by design. They make far more money off of variations of aspirin than they ever do from vaccines.

    Parents who do not vaccinate their children for any reasons other than medical are paranoid, ignorant, selfish and dangerous to the public.

    “There is no proof an”outbreak” is taking place!”
    The CDC says otherwise.

    It is obvious that rational appeals and providing information is not going to help the dangerous paranoia of anti-vaxxers. They feel compelled to put the public at risk for no sane reason whatsoever.



  • Jack

    Larry, unless he’s a sadist, and he certainly doesn’t sound like one, Julian obviously does not want to see more dead children. He is just sincerely mistaken, in my opinion, in how he looks at the vaccination issue. To me, there is no possible cost/benefit or risk/reward calculus that can argue successfully against vaccinations.

    Julian takes his distrust of government and other authorities to a point where it erases the on-the-ground, seeing-is-believing evidence of what vaccinations do and don’t do. Bottom line is that we’ve had large-scale vaccinations for decades and if Julian were correct, we should see large-scale horrors sweeping across the population…..We don’t see that…..and instead, what we see is a continued climb in longevity and health. This could not possibly happen if the worst claims about vaccinations were correct.

  • Jack

    Actually, libertarianism makes a heck of a lot of sense in quite a number of areas, but there are important exceptions, which is why I’m not a libertarian.

    But in many areas today, given the vast, often-mindless expansion of government in every direction, libertarians make their share of good points. My pet peeve is how government expansion has really screwed things up when it comes to our society’s fighting an effective war on poverty and pathology. I could write a book or two on that subject alone.

    Yes, the Constitution provides for strong and affirmative central government — but only where it is needed — in areas where government does a better job than the alternatives. Libertarians are right to call to our attention all the areas where it absolutely is not needed.

    I worry about libertarian views when it comes to national security and sometimes public health, but in other ways, I am sympathetic to many of their concerns.

  • Larry

    It sounds like he is indifferent to dead children as long as he can feel special about being for a cause.

    Below is a great article on how shame is a good way of dealing with such rampant irrational dangerous idiocy.

    “The Anti-Vaccine Movement Should Be Ridiculed, Because Shame Works”

  • Larry

    For the most part, in its present form, it takes the form of excuses for “might makes right” behavior. Attacks on the safeguards against the “tyranny of the majority” which can easily use its political power to strip the liberties of others.

  • Jack

    Thanks Larry. I will read it.

  • Larry

    A Canadian commenter laying into the anti-vaxxer crowd with both barrels, yet typical Canuckian reserve.