Early Modern Times – alternative vax

Early Modern Times - alternative vax

Dear readers,

As vaccination distribution rolls out around the world–albeit inequitably, in proportion to a country’s wealth–let us consider the early anti-vaxxer movement, lampooned in the 1803 cartoon above by James Gillroy and discussed in this recent Public Domain Review essay by Erica X Eisen. What did opponents of vaccination think were the dangers of this form of inoculation, such that they espoused their own alternative vax?

The Aug. 8, 2020 issue of Early Modern Times ‘touched’ upon the long global history of variolation, the technique used in China, India, Turkey, Africa, and elsewhere of grafting the smallpox pustule as a form of inoculation to this deadly disease. Due to the observation and efforts of Lady Mary Wortley Montague and others, the practice was implemented in England in the 18th century by such physicians as Edward Jenner (1749-1823). Starting in 1796, though, Jenner developed the technique of applying the pustule of the far less harmful cowpox as a form of smallpox inoculation, also known as vaccination (from vacca, meaning ‘cow’). Upon hearing about this new-fangled vaccination, however, some people had a cow, or at least a real beef with it.

Within a few years, Jenner’s technique sparked a flurry of anti-vaxxer pamphlets. In 1800, Jen-nemesis Benjamin Moseley declaimed against the madness and immorality of vaccination as well as its deleterious physical effects: ‘Who knows, besides, what ideas may rise, in the course of time, from a brutal fever having excited its incongruous impressions on the brain? Who knows, also, but that the human character may undergo strange mutations from quadrupedan sympathy; and that some modern Pasiphaë may rival the fables of old?’ Eisen notes that the reference to Pasiphaë, the mother of the half-man, half bull Minotaur, links cowpox-derived vaccination with bestiality (while other anti-vaxxers, not to be Pasiphaë-d, would follow Moseley’s screed with associations between vaccination and syphilis). Along these lines, Dr. William Rowley’s 1805 pamphlet Cow-Pox Inoculation would feature children and adults suffering from bovine-related side-effects of vaccination, including a boy with an ox-like face–and in its second edition, Ann Davis, an elderly woman who was said to sprout horns as a result of Jenner’s treatment. For Rowley, then, vaccination caused such tragic oxidents which were a great dishornour to human dignity with such calf-human hybrids.

This moo-ha-ha was effectively satirised in Gillroy’s 1803 cartoon, above. At centre is a reluctant recipient of a stern Jenner’s brutal jab. Around her are women and men showing the imagined after-effects of vaccination: pocks and boils, the sprouting of horns, miniature cows growing out of sundry body-parts, and calves being birthed. One might interpret the cartoon as a sort of allegory of the Wild West of vaccination, given the presence of cow-boys and cow-girls; while the extreme results of such inoculation as exhibited by the birth of baby cows show that Jenner did do things by calves.

The anti-vaxxer movement would hot up even more in the mid-19th century, as vaccination in England and abroad became compulsory, and as it was distributed at no cost to the poor. This led to virulent attacks from opponents: they characterised vaccination as a form of branding (a reference to the scarring from the technique, as well as its derivation from cowpox) or even slavery, and in some cases championed older forms of inoculation–thus regarding Jenner’s technique as a variolation of their freedoms. But defenders of vaccination, then and now, insist that you are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own anti-vax.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Vax-finding mission Studies Program

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