One Hundred Years Ago: Anti-Vaccination Leagues

One Hundred Years Ago: Anti-Vaccination Leagues

The article we report, published in 1984 in The BMJ (The British Medical Journal), recounts the events that occurred between 1853 and 1885, a period in which the smallpox vaccination obligation was imposed throughout Great Britain; we decided to share it to reflect with you on what the opposition to the vaccination obligation has historically been and where anti-vaccinism really originates. One hundred and fifty years ago parents, doctors and ordinary citizens pointed the finger at the real problems of public health, rejecting all those draconian laws (even if today we could coin the neologism "draghiniane") which with obtuseness answered legitimate doubts by opposing the coercive force of the State , i.e. batons, fines and jail.

Although it was extended throughout Great Britain, the tightening of mandatory vaccination through the Vaccination Act of 1871 saw the real fulcrum of protests in the town of Leicester. There may have been various reasons, certainly among them the fact that Leicester itself had been cited in a report as one of the most unhealthy cities in the country, with no sewage system and with a significantly higher mortality rate from all causes than the rest of the country. Then surely the judges put the burden of ninety, applying the rule in a simply villainous way and passing in a very short time from a few dozen proceedings a year to over 1200 in a year, with very high fines, use of public force to arrest and threaten the population and all this, note well, while epidemic outbreaks of smallpox raged undisturbed in many English cities where vaccination coverage was almost total, demonstrating a non-negligible problem of the smallpox vaccine… the lack of effectiveness! Often it didn't work at all or very little (in the face of major health risks).

Leicester's response thundered loudly across Britain with a gigantic demonstration taking place in 1885, where many parents, accompanied by a torrent of cheering people, showed up outside the prisons to be arrested. Although the law that abolished the compulsory smallpox vaccine arrived only on 5 July 1948, the great opposition of Leicester obtained the modification of the same law in 1889, going so far as to greatly soften the obligation, curbing the excessive power of the State and its apparatuses.

Happy reading, Corvelva Staff

PS We thank Alessandro Nicolini for the translation and editing of the text.

Smallpox vaccination seemed to be such a reliable prophylaxis that in Britain, in 1853, it was made compulsory for all newborns. At first the law was not strictly enforced, but during a minor epidemic in 1864-8 the earlier legislation was tightened, giving the Boards of Guardians the task of ensuring its enforcement and prosecuting parents who failed to comply. . By then, however, serious and sometimes fatal side effects of vaccination were being reported, and with the outbreak of epidemics in various localities in the early 1871s, casting doubt on its efficacy, a campaign of opposition to the intervention, both on medical and ethical grounds. Leicester was one of many cities where anti-vaccination leagues arose, calling for the obligatory clause of the law to be repealed and advocating for other measures to tackle the disease, such as the total isolation of patients and anyone who came into contact with them . Despite this, the law was further strengthened in 6000, provoking even stronger opposition, which continued for two decades. In Leicester alone, during this period, 1884 lawsuits are said to have been brought, of which the following, reported in the Leicester press in XNUMX, are characteristic:

"Melton Mowbray Petty Sessions: Edward Irons was summoned for failing to comply with his two-year-old son's vaccination order. He said he had a conscientious objection to not complying with the Vaccination Act and was acting on the advice of his doctor , who argued that the vaccination was not conducive to the child's health, nor would it benefit him. One of his daughters had been vaccinated and had suffered greatly from the effects of the vaccination, and he could not allow the boy to take the same risk.. He then set out the views of several doctors on the evils of vaccination and said that, in his opinion, it would be inadvisable for the Court, in the presence of a conscientious objection, to enforce the law.
The President said few issues have given rise to the most conflicting opinions on the subject of vaccination. It has been proven beyond doubt that vaccination caused smallpox to manifest itself in a much milder form. The Court was unanimous in its views on the matter. They acted for reasons of public order and decided that the order had to be carried out within fifteen days. If the order was not complied with, the defendant would be liable to a fine of twenty shillings. This procedure would be followed in all cases presented to them."

"In 1868 George Banford had a son. He was vaccinated and after the operation the child was covered in sores, and it was some time before he was able to leave the house.
Again Mr. Banford complied with the law in 1870. This child was vaccinated by Dr. Sloane, in the belief that by going to him he would obtain pure matter. In this case erysipelas developed and the child lay ill in bed for some time. In the third case the child was born in 1872, and immediately after the vaccination the erysipelas appeared and had such a negative course that, at the end of the 14 days, the child died."

For refusing to jeopardize a fourth child, Mr. Banford was fined 10 shillings with the option of seven days' jail, which was the usual penalty imposed by the magistrates of Leicester. Some parents were taken to court multiple times and paid the fine each time. Others have chosen the tougher alternative. The Leicester Mercury reported a demonstration which took place in one of the main streets of the city.

"At around 7.30 a good number of anti-vaccine advocates were present and a retinue of people was formed, preceded by a banner, to accompany a young mother and two men, all determined to turn themselves in to the police and suffer prison rather than have their children vaccinated The greatest sympathy was expressed for the poor woman, who courageously resisted and, although she seemed to sense her position, expressed her determination to go to prison time and time again, rather than entrust her son to the "tender mercies" of a public vaccinator. The three were followed by a large crowd and three hearty cheers were bestowed at Gallowtreegate which were renewed with greater vigor as they passed through the police cell doors."

A further penalty, which fell hardest on those least able to bear it, was that the fine for default and the cost of legal action be forcibly extorted through the seizure and sale of their furniture.

“A man named Arthur Ward had two sons harmed by vaccination and refused to have another undergo the surgery. A fine was imposed and on 24 November two police officers requested fines or, failing that, for The husband was out in the market and the poor woman had no money to pay.The goods downstairs were deemed insufficient to cover the amount, and the agents asked to go upstairs.
The woman refused and an altercation ensued, with harsh language from the officers, who threatened to take her husband to jail, terrifying Mrs. Ward.
She was pregnant at the time and was so shocked and frightened that she caused symptoms that eventually led to a premature birth and on December 26 she gave birth to a stillborn baby. She never recovered and after a week she died. The doctor who had attended Mrs. Ward said that while he believed in vaccination, he did not feel it was the duty of any professional to enforce the laws in the outrageous and brutal way in which they were enforced."

The position taken by parents who feared for their children's lives was strengthened by the assertion that vaccination was not only dangerous in itself, but was not the most appropriate way to combat smallpox. In 1884, with outbreaks breaking out in several cities, including c, Birmingham and Liverpool, and 1400 patients being treated in London alone, a correspondent wrote to the Leicester Mercury:

"To the reflective observer it must seem rather strange that all the recent smallpox epidemics have appeared among populations in which the laws mandating vaccination have been rigorously and systematically enforced. 96% of births in London are protected by vaccination. I beg to ask whether the physicians who have defended and promoted a system of medical procedures which eighty years of experience have proven to be a disastrous and humiliating failure should not feel honorably compelled, on public grounds, to backtrack and confess that the vaccination, like other once popular prescriptions of inoculation, hemorrhage and mercurization, is a grave and malicious mistake.
Every municipality has evidence showing that zymotic diseases arise and are promoted by unsanitary conditions and can be prevented by personal and municipal cleanliness."

In 1884, when these reports and commentaries were published, the campaign against compulsory vaccination was succeeding. Data for the last six months of 1883 showed that in Leicester there had been 2281 births and only 707 children vaccinated; 1138 remained unvaccinated, 20 vaccinations were deferred upon presentation of a medical certificate and 3 vaccinations "had no effect".

A speaker at a public rally commented on these figures.

"It was the fact that many infants in the city of Leicester were not vaccinated, and he did not know that there was any other city in the Kingdom that could make that claim with certainty. Last week one of their magistrates declared that they would not dealt with another vaccination case. Not only did they want other magistrates to follow his example. They wanted to get the Boards of Guardians on the side of the anti-vaccines."

Leicester's parents and burghers passed a resolution expressing "heartfelt satisfaction at Stratton's Alderman's forthright defense of parental rights against vaccination advocates and medical despotism that seeks to gain control over every family in the country We are glad that you have come nobly forward to raise your voice in a cause, which is that of the old English law of private judgment and the duty of the enlightened conscience of intelligent men to preserve the health of their children to the best of their capacity".

In 1885 Leicester was the scene of a large demonstration of representatives of anti-vaccination leagues from many other cities. While leading men such as Lyon Playfair and Sir Charles Dilke championed the cause of vaccination, the Radical MPs for Leicester led and eventually won a battle to have the relevant legislation examined by the Royal Commission, which was followed by a report calling for the abolition mandatory and allow exemption for reasons of conscience.


Archives of Disease in Childhood, 1984, 59, 1195-1196


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