When Ben Franklin campaigned against inoculation

Print More

Public Domain

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.