Ben Franklin had to deal with anti-vaccines during smallpox
Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists in the face of a deadly smallpox epidemic. Their varied responses are a weirdly prescient object lesson for today’s world, also devastated by a virus and divided over vaccination three centuries later.
As a microbiologist and a Franklin scholar, we see parallels between yesterday and today that could help governments, journalists and the rest of us cope with the coronavirus pandemic and future threats.
Smallpox hits Boston
Smallpox was nothing new in 1721. Known to have affected people for at least 3000 years old, it spread to Boston, eventually hitting more than half of the city’s population. The virus killed approximately 1 in 13 – but the death toll was probably higher, as the lack of sophisticated epidemiology made it impossible to identify the cause of all deaths.
What was new, at least for Boston, was a simple procedure that could protect people from illness. It was known as “variolation” or “inoculation” and involved deliberately exposing a person to the smallpox “material” from a victim’s scabs or pus, by injecting the material into the skin at the same time. using a needle. This approach generally caused mild illness and induced a state of “immunity” against smallpox.
Even today, the exact mechanism is very little understood and little research on variolation has been done. Inoculation through the skin appears to activate an immune response which leads to milder symptoms and less transmission, possibly due to the route of infection and the lower dose. Since it relies on the activation of the immune response with live variola virus smallpox, inoculation is different from modern vaccination which smallpox eradicated using the much less harmful but related vaccinia virus.
Inoculation treatment, which originated in Asia and Africa, became known in Boston thanks to a man named Onesimus. In 1721, Onésime was enslaved, owned by Boston’s most influential man, the Reverend Cotton Mather.
Known mainly as Minister of the Congregation, Mather was also a scientist with a particular interest in biology. He was careful when Onesime told him “He had undergone an operation, which had given him something of smallpox and would save him forever; adding that it was often used “in West Africa, where he was originally from.
Inspired by this information from Onesimus, Mather teamed up with a doctor from Boston, Zabdiel Boylston, to conduct a scientific study of the effectiveness of inoculation worthy of the 21st century praise. They found that of the 300 or so people Boylston had inoculated, 2% had died, compared to nearly 15% of those who contracted smallpox from nature.
The results seemed clear: inoculation could help in the fight against smallpox. Science has won the day in the mind of this clergyman. But others were not convinced.
A local newspaper editor named James Franklin had his own affliction – namely an insatiable thirst for controversy. Franklin, who was not a fan of Mather, set about attacking the inoculation in his journal, The New-England Courant.
An article from August 1721 attempted to make readers feel guilty by making them resist inoculation. If someone gets vaccinated and then passes the disease on to someone else, who in turn dies, the article asked, “of whom will their Blood be required?” The same article went on to say that “epidemic diseases” such as smallpox come “as judgments from an angry and discontented God”.
Contrary to the research of Mather and Boylston, the Courant articles were not designed to find out, but to sow doubt and mistrust. The argument that inoculation could help spread the disease postulates something that was theoretically possible – at least if simple precautions were not taken – but that seems irrelevant. If the inoculation worked, wouldn’t it be worth this small risk, especially since widespread inoculations would greatly reduce the likelihood of one person infecting another?
Franklin, the editor of The Courant, had a younger brother in apprenticeship at the time – a teenage boy named Benjamin.
Historians do not know which side young Franklin took in 1721 – or whether he took any side at all – but his subsequent approach to inoculation years later has lessons for the world’s current encounter with a deadly virus and a split response to a vaccine.
You might expect James’ younger brother to have been inclined to object to the inoculation as well. After all, think like family members and others you identify with is a common human tendency.
That he was able to overcome this inclination shows Benjamin Franklin’s Capacity for Independent Thinking, an asset that will serve him throughout his life as a writer, scientist and statesman. While sticking to social expectations has certain advantages in some contexts, it is also useful to be able to get rid of these norms when they are dangerous. We believe that the most successful people are those who, like Franklin, have the intellectual flexibility to choose between membership and independence.
The truth, not the victory
Perhaps the inoculation controversy of 1721 had helped him understand an unfortunate phenomenon that continues to plague the United States in 2021: When people take sides, progress suffers. Tribes, whether they are long-standing or newly formed around an issue, can devote their energy to demonize the other side and rallying theirs. Instead of attacking the problem, they attack each other.
Franklin, in fact, became convinced that inoculation was a good approach to prevent smallpox. Years later, he planned to have his son Francis vaccinated after recovering from a case of diarrhea. But before the inoculation took place, the 4-year-old boy contracted smallpox and died in 1736. Citing a rumor that Francis had died from the inoculation and noting that such a rumor might deter parents to expose their children to this procedure, Franklin made a point of setting the record straight by explaining that the child had “received distemper in the common route of infection. ”
While writing his autobiography in 1771, Franklin reflected on the tragedy and used it to argue for inoculation. He explained that he “bitterly regretted and still regretnot inoculating the boy, adding, “This I mention for the sake of parents who omit this operation, on the assumption that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that regret can be the same in both cases, and therefore the safer one should be chosen. ”
A scientific point of view
A final lesson from 1721 concerns the importance of a truly scientific perspective, which embraces science, facts, and objectivity.
Inoculation was a relatively new procedure for Bostonians in 1721, and this method of rescue was not without fatal risks. To resolve this paradox, several doctors meticulously collected data and compared the number of people who died from natural smallpox with deaths after smallpox inoculation. Boylston basically did what researchers today call a clinical study on the effectiveness of inoculation. Knowing that he had to demonstrate the utility of inoculation in a diverse population, he reported in a little book how he inoculated nearly 300 people and carefully noted their symptoms and conditions over the days and weeks.
The recent emergency use authorization of mRNA-based and viral vector vaccines for COVID-19 has produced a wide range of hoaxes, misrepresentation and conspiracy theories, especially in various social media. Like the 18th century inoculations, these vaccines represent new scientific approaches to vaccination, but based on decades of scientific research and clinical studies.
We suspect that if he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would want his example to guide modern scientists, politicians, journalists, and all who make personal health decisions. Like Mather and Boylston, Franklin was a scientist with a respect for evidence and ultimately for truth.
Regarding a deadly virus and a divided response to preventative treatment, Franklin was clear on what he would do. It doesn’t take a visionary like Franklin to accept the evidence in medical science today.
Brand Canada is Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Indiana Kokomo University.
Christian Chauret is Dean of Science, Professor of Microbiology at Indiana Kokomo University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation. You can read it here.
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