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Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Forebears of the Antivaxxers

In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing disease to spread.

At The Washington Post, Jess McHugh writes that Puritan minister Cotton Mather was a proponent of inoculation agains smallpox.  His opponents were the forebears of today's antivaxxers.
Around 3 a.m. one November morning in 1721, a bomb crashed through the window of Cotton Mather’s Boston home. It had been hurled with such force that the fuse fell off, and it failed to detonate. Attached to the explosive was a warning note: “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam you: I’ll inoculate you with this; with a Pox to you.’’
Much like anti-vaxxers of today, dissidents came from a wide variety of education levels and socioeconomic backgrounds and could not fit easily into a single category. William Douglass, the man leading the anti-inoculation charge, was one of the few Boston doctors with a medical degree. The public debate that ensued drew on scripture and suspicion but also on practical argument: Douglass pointed out that inoculation (unlike modern vaccines) remained untested and that Mather and Boylston’s experiments hardly held up to scientific scrutiny.

Like today, too, critics of inoculation did not have faith in those in power. “Where I see the most commonality is a mistrust in leaders: both civic leaders, religious leaders and in scientists,” said Andrew Wehrman, an assistant professor at Central Michigan University specializing in the politics of medicine in early America. He went on to list the many differences, including how quickly people would come to change their minds. In just a few short decades, he noted, some Revolutionary War soldiers would be using their enlistment bounties to pay for their own inoculation.

There was a religious element, too. Some who opposed inoculation spoke of the practice as a violation of God’s will as well as doing specific harm to innocent people. Mather too, drew on comparisons to God and Satan in understanding the epidemic. Instead of saying the people of Boston were simply mistaken, he wrote in his diary that the devil had “taken a strange Possession” of them.