The Age of Enlightenment prevailed among intellectuals in Europe and America in the 18th century. It was widely believed that human reason could penetrate the secrets of life and the universe and lead to new and better human societies.
In the words of our Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
History shows that nothing is really self-evident or unalienable, as these concepts have been fought over ever since 1776, just as they were before 1776; and it is hard to be confident that, over the last 50 years, our own culture and others have made progress in areas like democratic engagement, voting rights, respect for minority populations, or reliance on science and medicine.
One of the scourges of human history has been contagious disease. Smallpox, in the 18th century, killed about 400,000 Europeans a year (compared to about 1,000,000 Europeans dead so far from Covid-19 in the last 12 months). Variolation, preventative infection with a low-grade virus, long known in China, India and Africa, was introduced in Europe and America in the early 18th century.
Famed Puritan minister Cotton Mather encouraged vaccination in Boston in the 1720s, resulting in hate messages and an attempted bombing of his house. Many people were outraged at the idea of being infected with even a low-grade version of a virus, and some religious leaders felt it interfered with the divinely ordained course of life.
National leaders played a large role; for example, Catherine the Great of Russia, whose husband had been disfigured by smallpox, had herself inoculated in 1768, and later her son the future Tsar Paul I, and she launched a campaign to inoculate people throughout her empire. It could have been helpful today, as it turns out, if her accomplishment had been depicted in the gripping 2019 miniseries Catherine the Great starring Helen Mirren (descended, as it happens, from Russian nobility).
In America, future president John Adams was inoculated in 1764, and his wife Abigail had herself and their children inoculated in Boston in 1776, including future 6th president John Quincy Adams. On the other hand, presidents Washington and Lincoln both contracted smallpox.
Modern mass vaccination against smallpox was introduced by British physician Edward Jenner in 1798. He in fact coined the word “vaccine,” derived from the Latin word for “cow,” as he derived his anti-smallpox solution from a related but much lesser disease, the cowpox. The importance of Jenner’s breakthrough is commemorated in the town of Jennersville in southern Chester County.
Even in later times, there was reluctance to take this protective measure; and as with many medical procedures there remained a tiny risk of adverse and even fatal reactions. My own grandparents must have still been among the resisters, because my aunt, born in 1914, bore smallpox scars on her face throughout her life.
Finally, by 1980, smallpox was considered eradicated worldwide. However, measles, thought to be eradicated in the US, is now recurring here due to refusal of many Americans to be vaccinated. Similarly polio, for which effective vaccines have existed for about 70 years, is spreading in some areas of the world that resist vaccination. The Bubonic Plague, which in the mid-14th century killed about 1/3 of the European population, despite the availability of vaccines still exists worldwide, including in parts of the US Southwest.
And then, there is the shameful history of the exposure, sometimes intentional, of Native Americans to smallpox and other European diseases. Those diseases were bad enough for the New World colonizers, but they were devastating to communities that had never encountered them before.
Of course, we can’t help thinking of Covid-19. How long will vaccine refusal delay or prevent adequate numbers of people being vaccinated? Will autocratic countries like China and Russia succeed before many democracies like the US and most of western Europe, which are unable to impose policies on skeptical groups? Will it take a couple of centuries — or more — to eradicate this scourge?
Human history is always interesting, because you never know which way it will turn. In my view, if people don’t trust medicine with their lives, they are endangering themselves, their families, and other people.
Maybe I have a special interest in this topic because on the other side of my family, my grandmother refused for ideological reasons to allow her college-age daughter to undergo an appendectomy (standard practice here since the 1890s), thus leading to the early death of an aunt I never knew.