Anti-vaxxers, Colonial Style

Just like the anti-vaxxers of today, early Americans opposed attempts by medical professionals to halt the spread of contagious disease through the use of techniques aimed at creating immunities. In 1721 Bostonians rioted, attacking the physician Zabdiel Boylston and his home, to prevent the inoculation of their fellow town's people against the widely-feared and potentially devastating disease of smallpox.

When Cotton Mather, a leading minister and advocate for science in Boston, argued in favor of smallpox inoculation and sought out local doctors to administer it, he got only one recruit. Some of his fellow Bostonians agreed to be inoculated but others were vehemently opposed. They objected even though they knew well the effects of rampant smallpox epidemic. A contagious disease that visited colonial communities intermittently, this virus caused high fever, rash and sometimes death. The "pox" of smallpox, lumpy spots that appeared on the face and body, eventually scabbed over, leaving survivors with pitted scars. (Any cinematic version of life before 1800 that depicts smooth-skinned people avoids the reality that many were disfigured, their faces severely pitted faces from the disease.) Smallpox fatalities ran at about 30 percent by the 1720s in colonial Boston. The disease had been far more deadly when European invaders first exposed Native Americans, who had lived in isolation from recurrent epidemics and therefore had no immune individuals in their population.

Colonial critics opposed inoculation for two reasons: either it would not work or it would. Unlike modern anti-vaxxers, who worry less about the actual disease than they do about imagined ancillary dangers, these critics focused on the dangers of exposure to the disease itself, concerned that even more moderate exposure would bring on its full effects. They envisioned people sickening and in some cases dying, the survivors left with terrible scars. Some of the inoculated did die -- most famously the brilliant clergyman and theologian (sometimes called America's first philosopher) Jonathan Edwards.

Some opponents worried more about the consequences of inoculation if the procedure worked. They feared that God would be displeased if they avoided the disease. In this view, diseases and other sufferings were sent as a chastisement, which people had to accept. Trying to avoid sickness and even death took such decisions out of God's hands, which they believed to be wrong. Long before the rise of Christian Science, these people articulated a similar view: the faithful were called to accept suffering and meet it with prayer. If that was the only proper response to epidemic diseases that might carry away loved ones, inoculation was an abomination.

The anti-vaxxers of today, trying to keep their children safe at all costs, are in many ways a far cry from their colonial peers, who were willing to let their children die if it was God's will. While in our world of pesticides and radiations we fear silent killers introduced by human action, earlier Americans feared age-old diseases visited on their communities by an angry God. Today, modern (often affluent) parents want individual control over their children's fates and see their physical safety as the highest goal; some refuse to relinquish control, even to medical experts.

Colonial Americans believed they and their children were in God's hands. They tried to submit to God's will, to accept their own powerlessness in the face of illness and even death. Anti-vaxxers today are not swayed by the fact that they imperil the children of others by their decision to forego vaccination, while colonial parents feared that they wronged their children by trying to protect them from death, if death was the will of God.