It all began with pus from a victim of smallpox being scratched into the arm of a healthy person. The aim was to induce a mild infection that would confer protection against the natural disease. The procedure was given the name variolation. From that modest beginning evolved procedures that already have saved millions of lives and today promise to save us from Covid-19.
In the 18th century, variolation became common in England and in her colonies. During our war of independence, Gen. George Washington mandated variolation of his troops following outbreaks of smallpox.
On May 14, 1796, Edward Jenner, a British physician, injected material from a victim of cowpox into the arm of his gardener’s 8-year-old son. It was known to Jenner that milkmaids often suffered from cowpox, a nonlethal disease, and were later seen to be resistant to smallpox. Vaccine was the word Jenner gave the material; vacca is the Latin word for cow.
Variolation was outlawed in England in 1840 to be replaced by vaccination. This was followed in 1853 by a mandate that all infants be vaccinated against smallpox in the first three months of life. The years that followed saw the development of vaccines against polio, measles and many other maladies. Today, the acronym DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus) becomes known to every new mother as her baby is vaccinated.
Resistance to vaccines is as old as vaccines themselves. In England the Leicester Anti-Vaccination League was founded in 1869 to be followed by the Anti-Vaccination Society of America in 1879. The bases for anti-vaccination sentiment have remained remarkably constant over the past century and a half: religious objections, ignorance of medical science and opposition to government intrusion into our lives.
Those who resist mandates frequently cite John Stuart Mill, an eloquent defender of liberty and a champion of protection from the tyranny of political rulers. In his book “On Liberty,” published in 1859, he wrote that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” What those opposed to mandates seldom mention is that Mill also said that where the conduct of the individual is recognized to be harmful to the general welfare, society has the right to act against him.
At a time when 99% of those killed by Covid-19 are unvaccinated and more police are dying from the virus than from violence, we must end today’s resistance to vaccination based on a failure to understand medical science or a distorted view of individual freedom in a civilized society. I believe that every American has a moral responsibility to be fully vaccinated against the plague of Covid-19. In doing so, we protect ourselves, our loved ones, the many among us who are unable to be vaccinated and our fellow citizens.
Jerrold Winter, Ph.D., is a professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the University at Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. His latest book is titled “Our Love Affair with Drugs.”