Category Archives: Covid-19

The War on Children’s Plague

In the early 19th century, doctors called it angina maligna (gangrenous pharyngitis) or “malignant sore throat.”  Then in 1826, the French physician Pierre-Fidele Bretonneau grouped both together as diphtherite.  It was a horrible childhood disease in which severe inflammation of the upper respiratory tract gave rise to a false membrane, a “pseudomembrane,” that covered the pharynx, larynx, or both.  The massive tissue growth prevented swallowing and blocked airways and often led to rapid death by asphyxiation.  It felled adults and children alike, but younger children were especially vulnerable.  Looking back on the epidemic that devastated New England in 1735-1736, the lexicographer Noah Webster termed it “literally the plague among children.”  It was the epidemic, he added, in which families often lost all, or all but one, of their children.

A century later, diphtheria epidemics continued to target the young, especially those in cities.  Diphtheria, not smallpox or cholera, was “the dreaded killer that stalked young children.”[1]   It was especially prevalent during the summer months, when children on hot urban streets readily contracted it from one another when they sneezed or coughed or spat.  The irony is that a relatively effective treatment for the disease was already in hand.

In 1882, Robert Koch’s assistant, Fredrich Loeffler, published a paper identifying the bacillus – the rod-shaped bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheria first identified by Edwin Klebs – as the cause of diphtheria.  German scientists immediately went to work, injecting rats, guinea pigs, and rabbits with live bacilli, and then injecting their blood serum – blood from which cells and clotting factor have been removed – into infected animals to see if the diluted serum could produce a cure.  Then they took blood from the “immunized” animal, reduced it to the cell-free blood liquid, and injected it into healthy animals. The latter, to their amazement, did not become ill when injected with diphtheria bacilli.  This finding was formalized in the classic paper of Emil von Behring and Shibasaburo Kitsato of 1890, “The Establishment of Diphtheria Immunity and Tetanus Immunity in Animals.”  For this, von Behring was awarded the very first Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1901.      

Thus the birth of blood serum therapy, precursor of modern vaccines and antibiotics alike.  By the early 1890s, Emile Roux and his associates at the Pasteur Institute discovered that infected horses, not the rabbits used by Behring and Kitsato, produced the most potent diphtheria serum of all.  Healthy horses injected with a heat-killed broth culture of diphtheria, it was found, could survive repeated inoculations with the live bacilli.  The serum, typically referred to as antitoxin, neutralized the highly poisonous substances – the exotoxins – secreted by diphtheria bacteria. 

And there was more:  horse serum provided a high degree of protection for another mammal, viz., human beings.  Among people who received an injection of antitoxin, only one in eight developed symptoms on exposure to diphtheritic individuals. In1895 two American drug companies, H. K. Mulford of Philadelphia and Parke Davis of Chicago, began manufacturing diphtheria antitoxin.  To be sure, their drug provided only short-term immunity, but it sufficed to cut the U.S. death rate among hospitalized diphtheria patients in half.  This fact, astonishing for its time, fueled the explosion of disease-specific antitoxins, some quite effective, some less so.  By 1904 Mulford alone had antitoxin preparations for anthrax, dysentery, meningitis, pneumonia, tetanus, streptococcus infections, and of course diphtheria. 

Colorful Mulford antitoxin ad from early 20th
century, featuring, of course, the children

In the era of Covid-19, there are echoes all around of the time when diphtheria permeated the nation’s everyday consciousness. Brilliant scientists, then and now, deploying all the available resources of laboratory science, developed safe and effective cures for a dreaded disease.  But more than a century ago, the public’s reception of a new kind of preventive treatment – an injectable horse-derived antitoxin – was unsullied by the resistance of massed anti-vaccinationists whose anti-scientific claims are amplified by that great product of 1980s science, the internet. 

To be sure, in the 1890s and early 20th century, fringe Christian sects anticipated our own selectively anti-science Evangelicals.  It was sacrilegious, they claimed, to inject the blood product of beasts into human arms, a misgiving that did nothing to assuage their hunger for enormous quantities of beef, pork, and lamb.  Obviously, their God had given them a pass to ingest bloody animal flesh.  Saving children’s lives with animal blood serum was apparently a different matter. 

During the summer months, parents lived in anxious expectation of diphtheria every day their children ventured on to city streets.  Their fear was warranted and not subject to the denials of self-serving politicians.  In 1892, New York City’s Health Department established the first publicly funded bacteriological laboratory in the country, and between 1892 and the summer of 1894, the lab proved its worth by developing a bacteriological test for diagnosing diphtheria.  Infected children could now be sent to hospitals and barred from public schools.  Medical inspectors, armed with the new lab tests, went into the field to enforce a plethora of health department regulations. 

Matters were simplified still further in 1913, when the Viennese pediatrician Bela Schick published the results of experiments demonstrating how to test children for the presence or absence of diphtheria antitoxin without sending their blood to a city lab. Armed with the “Schick test,” public health physicians and nurses could quickly and painlessly determine whether or not a child was immune to diphtheria.  For the roughly 30% of New York City school children who had positive reactions, injections of antitoxin could be given on the spot.  A manageable program of diphtheria immunization in New York and other cities was now in place.    

What about public resistance to the new proto-vaccine?  There was very little outside of religious fringe elements.  In the tenement districts, residents welcomed public health inspectors into their flats.  Intrusion into their lives, it was understood, would keep their children healthy and alive, since it led to aggressive intervention under the aegis of the Health Department.[2]   And it was not only the city’s underserved, immigrants among them, who got behind the new initiative.  No sooner had Hamann Biggs, head of the city’s bacteriological laboratory, set in motion the lab’s inoculation of horses and preparation of antitoxin, than the New York Herald stepped forward with a fund-raising campaign that revolved around a series of articles dramatizing diphtheria and its “solution” in the form of antitoxin injections. The campaign raised sufficient funds to provide antitoxin for the William Parke Hospital, reserved for patients with communicable diseases, and for the city’s private physicians as well.  In short order, the city decided to provide antitoxin to the poor free of charge, and by 1906 the Health Department had 318 diphtheria antitoxin stations administering free shots in all five boroughs.[3][4]

A new campaign by New York City’s Diphtheria Prevention Commission was launched in 1929 and lasted two years.   As was the case three decades earlier, big government, represented by state and municipal public health authorities, was not the problem but the solution.  To make the point, the Commission’s publicity campaign adopted military metaphors.  The enemy was not government telling people what to do; it was the disease itself along with uncooperative physicians and recalcitrant parents.  “The very presence of diphtheria,” writes Evelynn Hammonds, “became a synonym for neglect.”[5]     

The problem with today’s Covid anti-vaccinationists is that their opposition to vaccination is erected on a foundation of life-preserving vaccination science of which they, their parents, their grandparents, and their children are beneficiaries.  They can shrug off the need for Covid-19 vaccination because they have been successfully immunized against the ravages of debilitating childhood diseases.  Unlike adults of the late-nineteenth and early-20th centuries, they have not experienced, up close and personal, the devastation wrought summer after summer, year after year, by the diphtheria bacillus.  Nor have they lost children to untreated smallpox, scarlet fever, cholera, tetanus, or typhus.  Nor, finally, have they, in their own lives, beheld the miraculous transition to a safer world in which children stopped contracting diphtheria en masse, and when those who did contract the disease were usually cured through antitoxin injections.

In the 1890s, the citizens of New York City had it all over the Covid vaccine resisters of today.  They realized that the enemy was not public health authorities infringing on their right to keep themselves and their children away from antitoxin-filled syringes. No, the enemy was the microorganism that caused them and especially their children to get sick and sometimes die. 

Hail the supremely common sense that led them forward, and pity those among us for whom the scientific sense of the past 150 years has given way to the frontier “medical freedom” of Jacksonian America.  Anti-vaccinationist rhetoric, invigorated by the disembodied comaraderie of internet chat groups, does not provide a wall of protection against Covid-19.  Delusory thinking is no less delusory because one insists, in concert with others, that infection can be avoided without the assistance of vaccination science. The anti-vaccinationists need to be vaccinated along with the rest of us.  A healthy dose of history wouldn’t hurt them either.         


[1] Judith Sealander, The Failed Century of the Child: Governing America’s Young in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), p. 326.

[2] Evelynn Maxine Hammonds, Childhood’s Deadly Scourge: The Campaign To Control Diphtheria in New York City, 1880-1930 (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 84-86.

[3] William H. Park, “The History of Diphtheria in New York, City,” Am. J. Dis. Child., 42:1439-1445, 1931.

[4] Marian Moser Jones, Protecting Public Health in New York City: Two Hundred Years of Leadership, 1805-2005 (NY: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2005), 20.                                     

[5] Hammonds, op cit., p. 206.

Copyright © 2021 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved. The author kindly requests that educators using his blog essays in courses and seminars let him know via info[at]keynote-books.com.

Vaccinating Across Enemy Lines

There are periods in American history when scientific progress is in sync with governmental resolve to exploit that progress.  This was the case in the early 1960s, when advances in vaccine development were matched by the Kennedy Administration’s efforts to vaccinate the nation and improve the public’s health.  And the American public wholeheartedly supported both the emerging generation of vaccines and the government’s resolve to place them in the hands – or rather arms – of as many Americans as possible. The Vaccination Assistance Act of 1962 grew out of this three-pronged synchrony.[1]

Between 1963 and 1965, a severe outbreak of rubella (German measles) lent support to those urging Congress to approve title XIX (of the Medicaid provision) of the Social Security Act of 1965.  And Congress rose to the task, passing into law the “Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment” amendments to Title XIX.  The latter affirmed the right of every American child to receive comprehensive pediatric care, including vaccination.

The timing was auspicious.  In 1963, Merck, Sharp & Dohme began shipping its live-virus measles vaccine, trademarked Rubeovax, which had to be administered with standardized immune globulin (Gammagee). In 1967 MSD combined the measles vaccine with smallpox vaccine as Dryvax, and then, a year later, released a more attenuated live measles vaccine (Attenuvax) that did not require coadministration of immune globulin.[2]   MSD marketing reminded parents that mumps, long regarded as a benign childhood illness, was now associated with adult sterility.  It too bowed to science and responsible parenting, with its incident among American children falling 98% between 1968 and 1985.

Crowd waiting for 1962 oral polio vaccination
Creator: CDC/Mr. Stafford Sm

America’s commitment to vaccination was born of the triumphs of American medicine during WWII and came to fruition in the early 1950s, just as Cold War fears of nuclear war gripped the nation and pervaded everyday life.  Grade school nuclear attack drills, “duck and cover” animations, basement fallout shelters with cabinets filled with canned food – I remember all too well these scary artifacts of a 1950s childhood. Competition with the Soviet Union suffused all manner of scientific, technological, public health-related, and athletic endeavor. The Soviets leapt ahead in the space race with the launching of Sputnik in 1957.  The U.S. retained an enormous advantage on the ground with the size and destructive power of its nuclear arsenal.

Less well known is that, in the matter of mass polio vaccination, countries in the Eastern Bloc – Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland – led the way. Hungary’s intensive annual vaccination campaigns, launched in 1957 with Salk vaccine imported from the U.S. and Sabin vaccine imported from the U.S.S.R. in 1959, was the prototype for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global strategy of polio eradication.  Czechoslovakia became the first nation to eradicate polio in 1959; Hungary followed in 1963.[3]  

It is tempting to absorb the narrative of polio eradication into Cold War politics, especially the rhetoric of the vaccination campaigns that mobilized the public. Throughout the Eastern Bloc, mass vaccination was an aspect of pro-natalist policies seeking to increase live births, healthy children, and, a bit down the road, productive workers. Eradication of polio, in the idiom of the time, subserved the reproduction of labor. In the U.S., the strategic implications of mass vaccination were framed differently.  During the late 50s and early 60s, one in five American applicants for military service was found medically unfit.  Increasing vaccination rates was a cost-effective way of rendering more young men fit to serve their nation.[4]   

But there is a larger story that subsumes these Cold War rationales, and it is a story, surprisingly, of scientific cooperation across the Iron Curtain.  Amid escalating Cold War tensions, the United States and Soviet Union undertook a joint initiative, largely clandestine, to develop, test, and manufacture life-saving vaccines.  The story begins in 1956, when the U.S. State Department and Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs jointly facilitated collaboration between Albert Sabin and two leading Soviet virologists, Mikhail Chumakov and Anatoli Smorodintsev.  Their shared goal was the manufacture of Sabin’s oral polio vaccine on a scale sufficient for large-scale testing in the Soviet Union. With a KGB operative in tow, the Russians travelled to Sabin’s laboratory in the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and Sabin in turn flew to Moscow to continue the brainstorming.  

Two years later, shipments of Sabin’s polio virus strains, packed in dry ice, arrived in the Soviet Union, and shortly thereafter, with the blessing of post-Stalin Kremlin leadership, the mass trials began.  The Sabin vaccine was given to 10 million Russian school children, followed by millions of young adults.  A WHO observer, the American virologist Dorothy Horstmann, attested to the safety of the trials and the validity of their findings. It has long since stopped polio transmission everywhere in the world except Afghanistan and Pakistan.   

No sooner was the Sabin live-virus vaccine licensed than Soviet scientists developed a unique process for preserving smallpox vaccine in harsh environments.  With freeze-dried vaccine now available, Viktor Zhdanov, a Soviet virologist and Deputy Minister of Health, boldly proposed to the 1958 meeting of the World Health Assembly, WHO’s governing body, the feasibility of global smallpox eradication.  After the meeting, he did not wait patiently for the WHO to act: he led campaigns both to produce smallpox vaccine and to solicit donations from around the world.[5]  His American colleague-in-arms in promoting freeze-dried vaccine was the public health physician and epidemiologist Donald Henderson, who led a 10-year international vaccination campaign that eliminated smallpox by 1977.[6] 

What can we learn from our Cold War predecessors?  The lesson is self-evident: we learn from them that science in the service of public health can be an enclave of consensus, what Dora Vargha, the historian of Cold War epidemics, terms a “safe space,” among ideological combatants with the military resources to destroy one another. The Cold War is long gone, so the safe space of which Vargha writes is no longer between geopolitical rivals with fingers on nuclear triggers.

But America in 2021 is no longer a cohesive national community.  Rather, we inhabit a fractured national landscape that erupts, with demoralizing frequency, into a sociopolitical battle zone. The geopolitical war zone is gone, but Cold War-type tensions play out in the present. Right-wing extremists, anti- science Evangelicals, purveyors of a Trump-like notion of insular “greatness” – these overlapping segments of the population increasingly pit themselves against the rest of us:  most Democrats, liberals, immigrants, refugees,  defenders of the social welfare state that took shape after the Second World War.  Their refusal to receive Covid-19 vaccination is absorbed into a web of breezy rhetoric:  that they’ll be okay, that the virus isn’t so bad, that the vaccines aren’t safe, that they come to us from Big Government, which always gets it wrong.  Any and all of the above.  In fact, the scientific illiterati are led by their anger, and the anger shields them from relevant knowledge – of previous pandemics, of the nature of a virus, of the human immune system, of the role of antibodies in protecting us from invading antigens, of the action of vaccines on blood chemistry – that would lead them to sequester their beliefs and get vaccinated.   

When the last wave of antivaccinationism washed across these shores in the early 1980s, it was led by social activists who misappropriated vaccination in support of their cause.  Second-wave feminists saw vaccination as part of the patriarchal structure of American medicine, and urged women to be skeptical about vaccinating their children, citing the possibility of reactions to measles vaccine among children allergic to eggs.  It was a classic instance of throwing out the baby with the bathwater which, in this case, meant putting the children at risk because the bathwater reeked of male hubris.  Not to be left out of the antiscientific fray, environmentalists, in an act of stupefying illogic, deemed vaccines an environmental pollutant – and one, according to writers such as Harris Coulter, associated with psychiatric illness.[7]                                

Matters are now much worse.  Antivaccinationism is no longer aligned, however misguidedly, with a worthy social cause.  Rather, it has been absorbed into this far-reaching skepticism about government which, according to many right-wing commentators and their minions, intrudes in our lives, manipulates us, constrains our freedom of choice, and uses our tax dollars to fund liberal causes.

Even in the absence of outright hostility, there is a prideful indifference to vaccination, partly because it is a directive from Big Government, acting in conformity with the directive of what is, after all, Big Pharmaceutical Science.  But we have always needed Big Government and Big Science to devise solutions to Big Problems, such as a global pandemic that has already claimed over 560,000 American lives.  Without American Big Government, in cooperation with British Big Government, overseeing the manufacture and distribution of penicillin among collaborating pharmaceutical firms, the miracle drug would not have been available in time for D-Day.  Big government made it happen.   A decade later, the need for international cooperation transcended the bonds of wartime allies.  It penetrated the Iron Curtain in the wake of global polio and smallpox epidemics that began in 1952 and continued throughout the decade.  

The last thing we need now is a reprise on that era’s McCarthyism, when anyone was tainted, if not blacklisted, by mere accusation of contact with communists or communism. That is, we do not need a nation in which, for part of the population, anything bearing the stamp of Big Government is suspected of being a deception that infringes on some Trumpian-Hobbesian notion of “freedom” in a state of (market-driven) nature.  

If you want to make America “great” again, then start by making Americans healthy again.  Throughout the 1960s, the imperative of vaccination overcame the anxieties of American and Soviet officials given to eying one another warily atop growing nuclear stockpiles. They brought the scientists together, and the result was the mass testing that led to the eradication of polio.  Then America rallied around the Soviet creation of freeze-dried smallpox vaccine, and largely funded the manufacture and distribution that resulted in the eradication of smallpox. 

Now things are better.  We live in an era in which science enables us to alter the course of a global pandemic.  It is time for antivaccinationists to embrace the science, indeed, to celebrate the science and the gifted scientists whose grasp of it enabled them to create safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines in astonishingly little time.  You’ve got to get your vaccine.  It’s the only way. 


[1] Elena Comis, Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 20.

[2] Louis Galambos, with Jane Eliot Sewell, Networks of Innovation: Vaccine Development at Merck, Sharp & Dohme, and Mulford, 1895-1995.Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1995, 96-98, 196-107.

[3] Dora Vargha, “Between East and West: Polio Vaccination Across the Iron Curtain in Cold War Hungary,” Butt. Hist. Med., 88:319-345, 2014; Dora Vargha, “Vaccination and the Communist State,” in The Politics of Vaccination (online pub date: March 2017).

[4] Comis, Vaccine Nation, 27.

[5] Manela E. “A Pox on Your Narrative: Writing Disease Control into Cold War History,” Diplomatic History, 34:299-323, 2010.

[6] Peter J. Hotez, “Vaccine Diplomacy:  Historical Perspective and Future Directions,” PLoS Neglected Trop. Dis. 8:e380810.1371, 2014; Peter J. Hotez, “Russian-United States Vaccine Science: Preserving the Legacy,” PLoS Neglected Trop. Dis., 11:e0005320,2017.

[7] The feminist and environmentalist antivaccination movements of the 1980s are reviewed at length, in Comis, Vaccine Nation, chapter 5 & 6.

Copyright © 2021 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved. The author kindly requests that educators using his blog essays in courses and seminars let him know via info[at]keynote-books.com.

Antivaccinationism, American Style

Here is an irony:  America’s staggering production of generations of scientific brainpower coexists with the deep skepticism about science of many Americans.  Donald Trump, a prideful scientific illiterate, rode to power on the back of many others who, like him, were skeptical about science and especially the role of scientific experts in modern life.  He maintains their allegiance still.

Why does this surprise us?  Anti-intellectualism was burned into the national character early in American history.  Those skeptical of this claim should read Richard Hofstadter’s brilliant twin studies of the 1960s, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Trend in American Politics. From the beginning of the American Experiment, democracy was antithetical to so-called European “elitism,” and this ethos gained expression, inter alia, in antebellum medicine.  

The Founding Fathers, an intellectual elite in defense of democracy, were not part of the movement away from science.  When Benjamin Waterhouse introduced Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine to America in 1800, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson hailed it as the greatest discovery of modern medicine.  They appreciated the severity of smallpox, which had ravaged the Continental Army during the War of Independence.  Indeed, Washington was so desperate to rein in its decimation of his troops that, in 1777, he inoculated his entire army with pus from active smallpox lesions, knowing that the resulting infections would be milder and far less likely to cause fatalities than smallpox naturally contracted.  When Jefferson became president in 1801, he pledged to introduce the vaccine to the American public, because “it will be a great service indeed rendered to human nature to strike off the catalogue of its evils so great a one as the smallpox.” Not to be outdone in support of Jenner’s miraculous discovery, Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, signed into law in 1813, “An Act to Encourage Vaccination.” Among its provisions was the requirement that the U.S. postal service “carry mail containing vaccine materials free of charge.”[1]

But this appreciation of the vaccine was short-lived, and Jefferson’s hope that the value of vaccination would seep into public consciousness was never realized.  In Jacksonian America, the Founding Fathers’ belief that medical progress safeguarded democracy gave way to something far less enlightened:  democracy now meant that everyone could be, indeed should be, his own doctor.  Most Americans had no need for those with university educations, much less clinical experience in governmentally managed public hospitals.  Jacksonian America emerges as what the historian Joseph Kett termed the “Dark Age of the profession.”[2]  During this time, the nation lay claim to a medical elite only because a few monied medical intelligentsia – John Collins Warren, Valentine Mott, Philip Syng Physick, William Gibson, and David Hosack, among them – found their way to European medical centers in London, Edinburgh, and somewhat later, Paris. 

Otherwise, it was every man for himself, which usually meant every woman for herself and her family.  Homeopaths, herbalists, Thomsonians, eclectics, hydropaths, phrenologists, Christian Scientists, folk healers, faith healers, uroscopians, chromo-thermalists – each exemplified the democratic mind in action.[3]  Sad to say, homegrown “regular” American medicine of the day, with its reliance on depletive (bleeding, vomiting, purging) and stimulative (alcohol, quinine) treatments, was no better and often worse.  The belief, Galenic in origin, that all diseases were variants of the same global type of bodily dysregulation is startlingly close to Donald Trump’s holistic medieval approach to bodily infection and its treatment.

The birth of scientific medicine in the decades following the Civil War could not still the ardor of America’s scientific illiterati. The development of animal blood-derived serums (antitoxins), forerunners of modern antibiotics, was anathema to many. Among them were religionists, mainly Christian, for whom injecting blood product of a horse or sheep into the human body was not only repugnant but sinful.  Better to let children be stricken with smallpox, diphtheria and tetanus, sometimes to the point of death, than violate what they construe as divine strictures – strictures, be it noted, not intimated, much less codified, in the body of doctrine of any of the five major world religions.[4]

Antivaccinationists of the early 20th century were an unhappy lot.  They were unhappy about the proliferation of medicines (“biologics”) for treating illness.  And they deeply resented the intrusion of the State into domains of parental decision-making in the form of newly empowered social workers, visiting nurses, and educators.  In fact, antivaccinationism was part and parcel of resistance to all things progressive, including scientific medicine.[5]  Holdovers from the free-wheeling anything-goes medicine of antebellum America – especially devotees of homeopathy and, of late, chiropractic – were prominent in its ranks.    

Now, in the face of a global pandemic no less lethal than the Great Influenza of 1918-1919, we hear the same irrational musings about the dangers of vaccines that animated the scientific illiterati at the turn of the 20th century. For the foes of public health, any misstep in the manufacture or storage of smallpox vaccine – a much greater possibility over a century ago than today – was enough to condemn vaccination outright. In1901,smallpox vaccination of school children in Camden, NJ led to an outbreak of 100 cases of tetanus, with nine deaths.  Historians believe that, in all probability, the outbreak resulted not from a contaminated batch of vaccine but rather from poor care of the vaccination site.  But Congress accepted the possibility of contamination, and the incident led to passage of the Biologics Control Act of 1902.[6]  Henceforth every manufacturer of vaccine had to be licensed by the Secretary of the Treasury (relying on the PHS Laboratory of Hygiene), and each package of vaccine had to be properly labeled and dated and was subject to inspection.[7]  

And this leads to a second irony: the more preventive medicine advanced, incorporating additional safeguards into vaccine production, storage, and administration, the greater the resistance of the illiterati.  Throughout the 20th century and right down to the present, the antebellum notion of science-free “medical freedom” continues to hold sway.  Then and now, it means the right to put children at risk for major infectious disease that could result in death – and the right, further, to pass disease, possibly severe and occasionally fatal, on to others.

It follows that, then and now, the science illiterati are skeptical, if not distressed, by the State’s commitment to public health.  It was Oklahoma Senator Robert Owen’s proposed legislation of 1910 to combine five federal departments into a cabinet-level Department of Public Health that pushed the opponents of medical “tyranny” onward. The Anti-Vaccination League of America, formed in 1908, was joined by the National League for Medical Freedom in 1910.  Eight years later, they were joined by the American Medical Liberty League.  For all three groups, anti-Progressivism was in full swing. “Medical freedom” not only exempted children from compulsory vaccination, but from medical examinations at school.  Further, young adults should not be subjected to premarital syphilis tests. Nor did the groups’ expansive view of medical tyranny flinch in the face of public education about communicable disease: municipal campaigns against diphtheria were to be forbidden entirely. 

With the death of the founders of the Anti-Vaccination League (Charles Higgins) and the American Medical Liberty League (Lora Little) in 1929 and 1931, respectively, antivaccinationism underwent a dramatic decline.  The Jacksonian impulse that fueled the movement simply petered out, and by the later ‘30s, Americans finally grasped that mainstream medicine was not simply another medical sect. It was the real deal:  a medicine grounded in laboratory research that effectively immunized against disease, promoted relief and cure of those already infected, and thereby saved lives.

But was the embrace of scientific healing really universal?  A pinnacle of life-depriving anti-science occurred well beyond the 1930s.  Consider the belief of some Christian sects that certain life-saving medical interventions must be withheld from children on religious grounds.  It was only in 1982, 81 years after von Behring’s discovery of diphtheria antitoxin launched the era of serum therapy, that criminal charges were first brought against parents who had withheld necessary treatment from their children.  Of the 58 cases of such parental withholding of care, 55 involved fatalities.[8]  Child deaths among Christian Scientists alone included untreated diabetes (leading to diabetic ketoacidosis), bacterial meningitis, and pneumonia.  Now things are better for the children, since even U.S. Courts that have overturned parents’ criminal convictions have come around to the mainstream belief that religious exemption laws are not a defense of criminal neglect – a fine insight for the judiciary to have arrived at more than century after serum therapy scored major triumphs in the treatment of rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, pneumococcal pneumonia, and meningococcal meningitis.

Should vaccination for the Covid-19 virus be a requirement for attendance in public and private schools?  How can the question even be asked?  As early as 1827, a Boston school committee ordered teachers to require entering students to give evidence of smallpox vaccination.[9]  Statewide vaccination requirements for smallpox followed in Massachusetts in 1855, New York in 1862, Connecticut in 1872, and Pennsylvania in 1895.  And the inoculations were effective across the board.  They quickly brought outbreaks of smallpox underway at the time of inoculation under control, and they prevented their recurrence in the future. These laws and those that followed were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1922 in Zucht v. King.[10]      

Twentieth-century vaccines were developed for pertussis in 1914, diphtheria in 1926, and tetanus in 1938.  In 1948 the three were combined and given to infants and toddlers at regular intervals as the DTP vaccine.  There was no hue and cry in 1948 or the years to follow. And yet, the same fear of vaccination that led the New York State Health Department to launch a statewide drive to immunize children against diphtheria now renders a new generation of parents resistant to mandatory Covid-19 vaccination for their own children.

Bear in mind that the anti-science rhetoric of today’s illiterati can be mobilized just as easily to resist DPT or any subsequent vaccine administered to their children. Why subject a child to DPT vaccination?  Perhaps combining three different vaccines into one injection entails heightened risks. Perhaps the batch of vaccine in the hands of one’s own doctor has been contaminated.  Perhaps one’s child will be among the miniscule number that have a minor allergic reaction.  And, after all, children who contract diphtheria, pertussis, and/or tetanus will hardly die from their infections, especially with the use of antibiotics. Why inject foreign matter into healthy infants – the very argument adduced by the opponents of diphtheria vaccine a century ago. 

The problem with antivaccinationist rhetoric in the 21st century is that its proponents are all beneficiaries of more than a century of mandatory vaccination policy.  If they lived in a society bereft of vaccines – or, for the unvaccinated, the immunity conferred by the vast herd of immunes – they would have led very different lives.  Indeed, some would not be here to celebrate solipsism masquerading as individualism.  Their specious intuitions about the risks of vaccination are profoundly anti-social, since they compromise the public’s health. Parents who decide not to vaccinate their children put the entire community at risk.  The community includes not only their own children, but all those who desire protection but cannot receive it:  children too young to be vaccinated, those with actual medical contraindications to vaccination, and the miniscule number who have been vaccinated but remain unprotected.[11]    

Nor is it strictly a matter of providing equal protection to individuals who seek, but cannot receive, the protection afforded by compulsory vaccination. In a secular society, religious objections to vaccination pale alongside the health of the community. Whether framed in terms of a “compelling state interest” in mitigating a health threat (Sherbert v. Vernerin [1963]) or the individual’s obligation to comply with “valid and neutral laws of general applicability” whatever their incidental religious implications (Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith [1990]) , the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that mandatory vaccination laws need not allow religious exemptions of any kind.  

Antivaccinationists might bear in mind a few particulars as they align themselves with the infectious dark ages.  Between 1900 and 1904, an average of 48,164 cases of smallpox and 1,528 smallpox deaths were reported each year. With the arrival of compulsory vaccination in schools, the rate fell drastically and outbreaks of smallpox ended in 1929. The last case of smallpox in the U.S. was reported in 1949.[12]  

Among American children, diphtheria was a major cause of illness and death through 1921, when 206,000 cases and 15,520 deaths were recorded.  Before Emil von Bering’s diphtheria antitoxin became available in 1894 to treat infected children, the death rate among children struck down, especially during the hot summer months, could reach 50%. Within several years, use of the antitoxin brought it down to 15%.[13]  Then, by the late 1920s, diphtheria immunization was introduced and diphtheria rates fell dramatically, both in the U.S. and other countries that vaccinated widely. Between 2004 and 2008, no cases of diphtheria were recorded in the U.S.[14] 

Between 1951 and 1954, paralytic polio cases in the United States averaged 16,316 a year, of which 1,879 resulted in death. Then science came to the rescue.  Jonas Salk’s dead-poliovirus vaccine became available in1955, and Albert Sabin’s live-poliovirus variant four years later. By 1962, there were fewer than 1,000 cases a year and, in every year thereafter, fewer than 100 cases.[15]

Now, alas, some parents still worry that the measles component of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine available since 1971 may lead to childhood autism.  Why?  Resist the disease-promoting mythologies of the illiterati at all costs.  Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder with a strong genetic component; its genesis is during the first year of life, before the vaccine is even administered.  None of the epidemiologists who have studied the issue has found any evidence whatsoever of an association, not among normal children and not among high-risk children with autistic siblings.[16]  The fact is that children who do not receive a measles vaccine have been found 35 times more likely to contract measles than the vaccinated.[17]  And measles is no laughing matter. When contracted later in life, measles and mumps are serious and can be deadly.  They were among the major systemic infections that felled soldiers during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the Anglo-Boer War, and World War I.[18]                  

All of which leads to a conclusion in the form of an admonishment.  Accept the fact that you live in a secular society governed by law and a network of agencies, commissions, and departments lawfully enjoined to safeguard public health.  Do your part to sustain the social contract that came into existence when the Founding Fathers, elitists molded by European thought who had   imbibed the social contractualism of John Locke, wrote the American constitution.

Vaccination is a gift that modern science bestows on all of us – vaccination proponents and opponents alike. When one of the two FDA-approved Covid-19 vaccines comes to a clinic or storefront near you, run, don’t walk, to get your and your children’s shots. Give thanks to the extraordinarily gifted scientists at Pfizer and Moderna who created these vaccines and demonstrated their effectiveness and safety. Make sure that everyone’s children grow up, paraphrasing the U.S. Army’s old recruiting slogan, to be all they can be.   


[1] Dan Liebowitz, Smallpox Vaccination: An Early Start of Modern Medicine in America, J. Community Hosp. Intern. Med. Perspect., 7:61-63, 2017 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5463674).

[2] Joseph F. Kett, The Formation of the American Medical Profession: The Role of Institutions, 1780-1860 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), p. vii. 

[3] Robert E. Riegel, Young America, 1830-1840 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973 [1949]), pp. 314-315, quoted at  314. 

[4] John D. Graberstein, “What the World’s Religions Teach, As Applied to Vaccines and Immune Globulins,” Vaccine, 31:2011-2023, 2013.

[5] James Colgrove, “’Science in Democracy’: The Contested Status of Vaccination In the Progressive Era and the 1920s,” Isis, 96:167-191, 2005.

[6]  Harry F. Dowling, Fighting Infection: Conquests of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 38; Harry M. Marks, The Progress of Experiment: Science and Therapeutic Reform in the United States, 1900-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 73-74.

[7] Jonathan Liebenau, Medical Science and Medical Industry: The FormationOf the American Pharmaceutical Industry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1987), 89-90.

[8]  Janna C. Merrick, “Spiritual Healing, Sick Kids and the Law: Inequities in theAmerican Healthcare System,” Amer. J. Law & Med., 29:269-300, 2003, at 280.

[9] John Duffy, “School Vaccination: The Precursor to School Medical Inspection,” J. Hist. Med. & Allied Sci., 33:344-355, 1978,

[10] Kevin M. Malone & Alan R. Hinman, “Vaccination Mandates: The Public Health Imperative and Individual Rights, Law in Public Health Practice (2009), 262-284, at 272.

[11] Alan R. Hinman, et al., “Childhood Immunization: Laws that Work,” J. Law, Med &I Ethics, 30(suppl):122-127, 2002.

[12] Frank Fenner, et al., Smallpox and its Eradication (Geneva: World Health Organization, 1988).

[13] Karie Youngdahl, “Early Uses of Diphtheria Antitoxin in the United States,” The History of Vaccines, August 2, 2010 (https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/blog/…).

[14] Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases, 11th Edition (The Pink Book). National Immunization Program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/Pubs/pinkbook/downloads/dip.pdf); Diphtheria. WHO, Regional Office for the Western Pacific (http://www.wpro.who.int/health_topics/diphtheria).

[15] CDC. Annual summary 1980: Reported Morbidity and Mortality in the United States. MMWR 1981;29; CDC, Reported Incidence of Notifiable Diseases in the United States, 1960. MMWR 1961;9.

[16] Frank DeStefano & Tom T. Shimabukuro, “The MMR Vaccine and Autism,” Ann. Rev. Virol., 6:585-600, 2019.

[17] Hinman, op. cit. (note 11).

[18] Paul E. Stepansky, Easing Pain on the Western Front:  American Nurses of the Great War and the Birth of Modern Nursing Practice (Jefferson, NC:  McFarland, 2020), 36, 50, 96, 144.

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