An Earlier Anti-Vaccination Movement

There has been a lot of discussion in the mainstream (and not-so-mainstream) media about the often-alleged, never-established connection between MMR vaccines and autism. (Even AHP has blogged about it once.) What is not so well known is that popular opposition to vaccination dates back to the beginnings of the procedure itself. Cotton Mather is well known for having endured vociferous opposition when he advocated inoculation against smallpox in 1720s Massachusetts. Most of Mather’s critics argued that inoculation spread small pox rather than stopping it, but some argued that, if inoculation worked, it amounted interference with God’s punishment of man. (Strangely, they didn’t believe this when it came to, say, setting broken bones or bandaging wounds.)

One of our frequent commenters, Romeo Vitelli, has written an excellent piece on the opposition to mandatory smallpox vaccination laws in the UK back in the late 19th-century. The movement was led by the long-forgotten businessman and multivalent activist Willam Tebb, but perhaps more interesting is that Tebb was able to recruit to his side in the anti-vaccination campaign the co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was an advocate of spiritualism, and it seems to be in spiritualist circles that he met and was befriended by Tebb.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

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