Smallpox: The Historical Myths Behind Mandatory Vaccines
Throughout the corona “pandemic” the Holy Grail of public health officials has been vaccination: only by vaccinating enough people—first the elderly and infirm, then all adults, and now even children—can the nefarious virus be beaten. As vaccination has proven less than wholly successful in preventing the spread of coronavirus, with studies showing rapidly declining protection from the vaccines, governments have doubled down, introducing not only “booster” shots for the vaccinated but also suggesting that the unvaccinated must be pressured and, if necessary, compelled to accept the vaccine.
Rising skepticism of the efficacy of these policies, let alone their morality, is understandable. However, it is not surprising that the medical establishment of modern states is wedded to the idea of vaccination as a panacea for disease prevention. This is, in fact, something close to the founding myth of public health: mandatory vaccination is what saved the world from the great scourges of the past, and it was introduced by heroic doctors in the face of much opposition from the egoistic, the stupid, and the establishment of silly theologians who thought that diseases were the will of God and that suffering humanity simply had to accept it. The core of this myth is the case of smallpox.
The Official History of Smallpox
The legend of smallpox and its eradication as told by most textbooks and virtually the whole medical establishment goes something like this: from about the sixteenth century, Europe was ravaged by periodic epidemics of smallpox (variola major), a disease that caused pustules to erupt all over the skin and very often, in approximately a fifth of all cases, led to death. Those who survived were often scarred for life (pockmarked). Early attempts to combat it through “variolation,” i.e., inoculation of healthy adults with puss from infected individuals, proved ineffective—while those who survived this treatment were immune, the practice also served to keep the disease alive and circulating in the population.1
Then, in 1796, the heroic Dr. Edward Jenner made the crucial discovery: anecdotal evidence suggested that milkmaids did not contract smallpox and Dr. Jenner surmised that contact with cattle had exposed them to cowpox (variola vaccinia), a disease that was much milder in humans. He therefore experimented with inoculating children with cowpox, and when he later exposed the same to smallpox through variolation, they proved to be immune. The medical establishment, in the form of the Royal Society, dismissed the good Dr. Jenner, but nothing daunted, he proceeded to promote his new treatment of “vaccination” and quickly received support from enlightened doctors and statesmen, who sponsored his scheme. Thousands were vaccinated in Great Britain within a couple of years, and the treatment spread to other European countries. Childhood vaccination was made mandatory in the “enlightened” despotisms of Bavaria (1807), Prussia (1835), Denmark (1810), and Sweden (1814) in short order and promoted everywhere else if not exactly imposed. Eventually, the English too would impose mandatory vaccination in spite of early opposition from people such as the farmer, journalist, and all-round Chad2 William Cobbett:
I was always, from the very first mention of the thing, opposed to the Cow-Pox scheme…. I, therefore, as will be seen in the pages of the Register of that day, most strenuously opposed the giving of twenty thousand pounds to JENNER out of the taxes, paid in great part by the working people….
…. This nation is fond of quackery of all sorts; and this particular quackery having been sanctioned by King, Lords and Commons, it spread over the country like a pestilence borne by the winds … [I]n hundreds of instances, persons cow-poxed by JENNER HIMSELF, have taken the real small-pox afterwards, and have either died from the disorder, or narrowly escaped with their lives!2
Reactionaries like Cobbett spreading misinformation notwithstanding, vaccination was a great success: the death toll of the smallpox fell drastically across Europe in the first decades of the nineteenth century, despite a few setbacks such as epidemics in the 1860s, the 1870s, and the 1880s. These, of course, simply proved the necessity of revaccination and that the minority of vaccine resisters had to be persuaded and cajoled to take the vaccine. If anyone doubts this, the experience of the Franco-Prussian War, fought in the middle of a Europe-wide smallpox pandemic, provides conclusive proof: the Prussian army, virtually all of whose soldiers had been vaccinated, proved highly resistant to the disease, while the French recruits, often drawn from benighted Catholic families skeptical of the vaccine, fell like flies.
Finally, the campaign led by Donald Henderson to eradicate smallpox worldwide through vaccination proved a great success. In 1980 the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated.
Realities of Smallpox
The careful reader may have concluded from some injudicious remarks in the previous section, that I do not fully accept this story. Indeed, while some of the major facts are correct—smallpox was a major killer, and it did disappear after the global campaign—the role of vaccination and especially of mandatory vaccination is greatly exaggerated. Two simple facts show this:
- The decline in mortality from smallpox across Europe began in 1800, before the vaccine was widely distributed and before it was made mandatory anywhere, and it is therefore simply impossible to credit this decline to Jenner and the vaccine.
- There were epidemics in practically every decade thereafter, but in the 1890s fatality fell through the floor—by the early 1900s, smallpox was practically indistinguishable from chicken pox. The reason was that a new strain of the virus, variola minor, developed and outcompeted the lethal strain.
The first point is easily seen in Henderson’s own graph:3
Similar graphs could be replicated for all European countries.4 The idea that vaccination caused the decline is obviously untenable, as the practice of vaccination did not spread that widely instantly. Early compulsory vaccination (Bavaria in 1807, Denmark in 1810) also came after the decline.
If the decline in overall mortality is not due to the vaccine, did it not at least limit epidemi
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