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Contemporary debates on vaccination policies have historical parallels in Ransom Center’s collections

By Jennifer Yang

Recently, The New York Times published an article on vaccination that has highlighted a resurging controversy. In late June 2014, a federal judge upheld a New York City policy barring unimmunized children from public schools, and objectors have decried the policy as an infringement upon their rights. In the United States, incomplete vaccination rates were highest among the poor until 1994, when the Vaccines for Children Program made it more affordable. Now, these rates are highest among the middle- and upper-classes, due to increasing philosophical and religious objections. However, such controversy is hardly new in the centuries-old history of vaccination. Documents in the Ransom Center’s collections cast historical light upon the modern vaccination debate.

 

In 1721 Boston, a smallpox epidemic generated an atmosphere of fear and suspicion when prominent physician Zabdiel Boylston began to counter the illness with vaccination methods. Cotton Mather, a prominent Boston clergyman, publicly declared his support of Boylston’s practices and encouraged other physicians to do the same. Outraged mobs believed vaccinators to be no better than murderers, and Boylston and Mather became subject to popular attacks, culminating in Boylston going into hiding with his family and practicing medicine in disguise. An assassination attempt made on Mather expressed the furious sentiments of the Bostonian public, as a bomb was thrown through his window with the affixed message “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam you: I’ll inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you.”

 

Vaccination came into more prominence and credulity with the publication of English physician Edward Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae in 1798. Jenner made the observation that farmhands and dairy maids, exposed to cowpox disease through their daily work, seemed to possess immunity against the more severe disease of smallpox. Jenner conducted an extensive series of cowpox inoculation case studies, often following patients for several years and even inoculating his own 11-month-old son, to see if his hypothesis about the effects of vaccination were true. Jenner’s findings increased general confidence in vaccination, as he proved that cowpox inoculations from human to human could guard against smallpox, while previously patients were more dangerously inoculated directly with the smallpox virus or from diseased animal matter.

 

Jenner’s work contributed to the passing of the UK Vaccination Acts, key vaccination laws ranging from 1840 to 1907. The 1840 Act made vaccination free, while from 1853 to 1874 a series of more stringent acts made vaccination compulsory and even penalized objectors with fines and imprisonment. Anti-vaccination groups and protestors became more common in this period, as citizens were gripped by fears of the rumored spread of diseases such as syphilis through negligent vaccinators. Vaccination Brought Home to the People, an 1876 pamphlet by Miss Chandos Leigh Hunt, exclaims “If the devil delights in torturing, as it is represented, then indeed must he revel in Vaccination!” Pamphlets and lectures expressing such sentiments abounded as membership in anti-vaccination leagues and groups increased. A famous supporter against the UK Vaccination Acts was playwright George Bernard Shaw, who in 1906 wrote a fervent letter of support to the National Anti-Vaccination League, equating official methods of vaccination with “rubbing the contents of the dustpan into the wound.” Dissent was somewhat appeased by the Vaccination Acts of 1889–1907, which enforced regulation and safety measures for vaccination, as well as allowing for conscientious objection.

 

The Ransom Center also possesses many manuscripts on French scientist Louis Pasteur and his work on vaccination.  Pasteur worked on a rabies vaccine from 1881 to 1885, experimenting on dogs, rabbits, apes, and eventually humans. A catalyst to his professional reputation came about in 1885, when Joseph Meister, a 9-year-old shepherd, was mauled by a rabid dog. Though Pasteur did not hold a license to practice medicine, he conferred with his colleagues about the possibility of treating the boy. His longtime friend and collaborator, physician Émile Roux, refused to work with him on the case. Finally, Pasteur found two eminent physicians who agreed to supervise the treatment. The boy recovered successfully, and Pasteur was lauded as a hero—he became nationally famous, with poets even writing odes to his genius, and went on to co-found the Pasteur Institute with Émile Roux on the laurels of his acclaimed scientific achievement.

 

Religious and philosophical objections have risen over the past decade, with religious exemptions for vaccinations nearly doubling in New York, and tripling in Ohio, where a measles outbreak spread throughout the Amish population. The nation has also seen a resurgence in measles and mumps, with the highest rate of measles since 1994. Debate over vaccination laws and compulsory policies in schools continues to rage, as fervent supporters arise to counter objectors in equal measure. Contemporary battles over vaccination controversy may find parallels in the past, as the centuries-old arguments and ideas resound in the modern voices of vaccination’s supporters and detractors.

 

 

Related content:

Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

 

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Newly cataloged collection of science materials now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

A drawing of Halley's Comet by Sir John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.
A drawing of Halley's Comet by Sir John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.

A collection of science materials from the family of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792–1871) is now open for research after a grant enabled staffers to rehouse the collection and to create an online inventory.

The Herschel family papers, acquired in 1960 with subsequent smaller accessions of additional materials, largely represent the life and work of Herschel, the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.

The Herschel family papers at the Ransom Center form a significant resource for the study of the history of science in general and also for studies in astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The lives of the Herschels, their ground-breaking achievements, their interactions with other leading scientists of their time, and their influence on their colleagues’ work are topics scholars may pursue in the papers. The Ransom Center’s Herschel collection is exceeded in size only by the collection at the Royal Society in London.

The cataloging project was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.

From the Galleries: Tycho Brahe's "Astronomiae instauratae mechanica"

By Elana Estrin

Before the telescope was invented, 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe built his own instruments to measure star and planetary positions with accuracy up to one arcminute. Brahe described these home-made instruments in his 1602 book, Astronomiae instauratae mechanica, the first edition of which is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works. Mary Kay Hemenway, Research Associate and Senior Lecturer of the Astronomy Department at The University of Texas at Austin, explains why Brahe’s book is one of her favorite items in the exhibition.

The greatest observational astronomer before the use of the telescope is undoubtedly Tycho Brahe. Justly proud of his methods and the many instruments that he designed and had built, he wrote a book illustrating them in 1598—and printed less than 100 copies on his own printing press. The Other Worlds exhibition includes a copy of the first trade edition (1602) that was printed mostly from the woodblocks and plates of the private edition. The book describes his observatory, Uraniborg, on the island of Hven in Denmark and the instruments he used. These instruments measured the altitudes or angular separations between astronomical objects. This allowed him to record carefully the positions of stars, including all of those listed by Ptolemy, and make a large (six-foot) globe of the fixed stars. The most iconic illustration of the book is that of the mural quadrant that allowed the observer to measure the altitude at which celestial bodies crossed the meridian. Its great size is shown by including a life-sized portrait of Brahe himself.

Since Brahe was essentially running a research institute with the equivalent of modern-day students, post-docs, instrument makers, mathematicians who did calculations, technicians, and a library, some of these are shown in the woodcut. We see these assistants in the background—performing observations, working on the data, even doing chemical experiments. Also included are portraits of King Frederick II and Queen Sophia of Denmark—his original patrons—and his faithful dog laying at his feet. It forms a complete picture of the astronomer at work with the components necessary.

Brahe’s observations of comets were so good that they showed that comets moved throughout the solar system, dispelling Aristotle’s notion of “comets as swamp gas that exist in the space between the earth and moon.” Being able to break through the celestial spheres allowed Brahe to come up with an interesting scheme to show the structure of the universe. If we count time by years, he follows Copernicus; his plan allows the Earth to remain in the center of the universe—with the moon and sun revolving around Earth, but the other planets revolving around the sun. His data was essential for Kepler’s development of the laws of planetary motions, but he didn’t live to see the key theoretical idea of his life shot down by the very person he had hired to provide mathematical proof of his unique, Earth-centered theory.