Brandeis historian Michael Willrich writes in The New York Times:
[P]ublic fear of vaccines did not originate with Dr. Wakefield’s paper. Rather, his claims tapped into a reservoir of doubt and resentment toward this life-saving, but never risk-free, technology.
Vaccines have had to fight against public skepticism from the beginning. In 1802, after Edward Jenner published his first results claiming that scratching cowpox pus into the arms of healthy children could protect them against smallpox, a political cartoon appeared showing newly vaccinated people with hooves and horns.
Nevertheless, during the 19th century vaccines became central to public-health efforts in England, Europe and the Americas, and several countries began to require vaccinations.
Such a move didn’t sit comfortably with many people, who saw mandatory vaccinations as an invasion of their personal liberty. An antivaccine movement began to build and, though vilified by the mainstream medical profession, soon boasted a substantial popular base and several prominent supporters, including Frederick Douglass, Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw, who called vaccinations “a peculiarly filthy piece of witchcraft.”
In America, popular opposition peaked during the smallpox epidemic at the turn of the 20th century. Health officials ordered vaccinations in public schools, in factories and on the nation’s railroads; club-wielding New York City policemen enforced vaccinations in crowded immigrant tenements, while Texas Rangers and the United States Cavalry provided muscle for vaccinators along the Mexican border.