According to health experts, a worldwide influenza pandemic may be on its way. Authorities are preparing massive quantities of vaccines, which will hopefully protect the public against the fatal consequences of the particularly nasty strain of influenza virus lurking in population centers throughout the world. Many people, however, fear the exceedingly rare complications of vaccines, preferring instead to risk the disease itself.
What would Ben Franklin say about individuals who decline inoculation?
Here is what he did say about the subject: “As the practice of Inoculation always divided people into parties, some contending warmly for it, and others as strongly against it. …” It was necessary to have a strict and impartial enquiry into the inoculation and death rates during epidemics.
Few people alive today are old enough to remember the 1918 influenza pandemic, an event that killed tens of millions of people. Ben Franklin, however, lived in an era where contagious epidemics—yellow fever, malaria, smallpox, typhus, influenza—were common. Since the germ theory of disease had not yet been proposed during Franklin’s lifetime, people had no idea about what caused such deadly assaults on the population. The most commonly accepted explanation involved divine visitation, presumably as punishment to an entire population for sinful conduct.
Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine did not occur until several years after Franklin died. During Franklin’s lifetime, inoculation against smallpox was performed by exposing a person to scabs taken from the skin of somebody with the disease. Usually, the inoculation process produced a mild smallpox infection; survival meant lifetime immunity. Occasionally, however, the inoculation would lead to a progressive form of the disease, which would kill the patient. For this reason, many feared inoculation, although Franklin favored it.
When Ben Franklin was a young printer in Philadelphia, he lost the only son he had with his wife to a smallpox epidemic. The lad was 4 years old at the time. Franklin had planned to have the boy inoculated, but never got around to it.
Ben Franklin never forgave himself for the loss. Like many parents who nowadays create a foundation in the memory of a child who died so that others might benefit from research into the illness that took away their loved one, Franklin started collecting smallpox inoculation statistics. He soon realized that the risk of inoculation was small compared to the risk of acquiring a smallpox infection in what he referred to as the “usual way.”
When Franklin was in England in 1759, he persuaded a famous physician to write a pamphlet for distribution in British North America favoring the smallpox inoculation. Franklin himself penned the pamphlet’s preface. In it, he presented his statistical results, hoping to persuade parents that their children would benefit from inoculation. Likewise, he found it necessary to overcome theological resistance to inoculation. Certain men of the cloth, it turns out, were convinced that any attempt to reduce the impact of a divinely ordained plague would go against God’s will. Franklin found it necessary, therefore, to point out that God gave mankind the capacity to discover a method that reduced the impact of a contagious illness.
Here’s how Franklin combined his analysis of smallpox statistics with his response to those who found inoculation somehow unholy:
“If the chance were only as two to one in favour of the practice [of inoculation] among children, would it not be sufficient to induce a tender parent to lay hold of the advantage? But when it’s so much greater, as it appears to be by these accounts (in some even as thirty to one) surely parents will no longer refuse to accept and thankfully use a discovery GOD in his mercy has been pleased to bless mankind with.”