The original anti-vax poster

May 25, 2019 • 12:50 pm

James Gillray (1756 or 1757-1815) was an English artist, caricaturist and satirist who has been called “the father of the political cartoon”. (Hogarth is another candidate.) Gillray also seemed to be anti-science, as judging from the cartoon below, which expressed the public fear of Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccination.

The proud owner of the original cartoon below is my old friend Andrew Berry, a lecturer and advisor at Harvard and spouse of Naomi Pierce, Harvard’s Curator of Lepidoptera. They are kindly putting me up in Cambridge for two days.

As I may have reported earlier, Jenner performed the first smallpox vaccination in the late 18th century, but the practice of inoculation, or variolation, in which matter from a smallpox pustule was injected into people, was practiced much earlier in India, China, and the Ottoman Empire.  (People observed that people who survived smallpox were henceforth immune to further bouts of the disease.)

Jenner had heard that milkmaids, who sometimes got a related virus, causing a milder disease called cowpox, were henceforth immune to smallpox as well. He took matter from the cowpox pustules of an infected dairymaid and injected it into an 8-year-old boy. About two months later he injected fresh smallpox matter into the same boy, who didn’t develop disease. (This sounds like a deeply unethical experiment.)

After several more such trials, Jenner convinced many people that vaccination, which primes the immune system against the virus (he didn’t know that, of course), protects against smallpox. Vaccination became widespread and Jenner became famous.

A short but good description of the history of inoculation and vaccination against smallpox is in the paper below (click on the screenshot):

Despite the success of vaccination, many were still opposed to it right up until the end of the nineteenth century. Among the opponents was evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace, who argued that the practice created more medical problems than it solved and was being unduly promoted by a medical practice that profited from vaccination.

Now, have a look at the print below, taken from the Art Institute of Chicago website. It’s the first anti-vaxer cartoon.

Wikipedia also shows the print and notes this about it:

The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! (1802). Produced after Edward Jenner administered the first vaccine, Gillray’s work caricatured the fear patients had being vaccinated from smallpox via cowpox that it would make them sprout cowlike appendages.

The satire below shows the fear that people injected with cowpox matter would produce cows from various orifices in their body, including the nether ones.

Although smallpox has been eradicated on this planet, we still see vociferous anti-vaxers, most recently for measles. The cartoon shows that this kind of unsubstantiated opposition has been around for two centuries.

26 thoughts on “The original anti-vax poster

  1. I just finished Microbe Hunters and was amazed at how unethical some of those hunters’ experiments were. Especially since in those days, “darkies” and “immigrants” were considered not entirely human; that’s the turn of the century for you. Hope the woke don’t read the book, they may try and change the name of the Walter Reed medical center.

  2. Subtle stuff there.

    I like the way it cleverly implies, without ever forcing it down its audience’s throat, that if you get vaccinated foot-long miniature cows will burst out of your nose.

  3. “Jenner performed the first smallpox vaccination in the late 18th century, but the practice of inoculation, or variolation, in which matter from a smallpox pustule was injected into people, was practiced much earlier in India, China, and the Ottoman Empire.”

    Inoculation was also practiced in America in at least the early 18th century, as is noted in this passage from Ben Franklin’s autobiography, which I just happen to be reading and in which Ben’s characteristic common sense prevails:

    “In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret, that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

    1. It sounds like Franklin is talking about vaccinating with the smallpox virus rather than cowpox. It doesn’t sound particularly useful unless they had a weakened form. I don’t know how they would have gotten one of those.

        1. From the Wikipedia article, it looks like they took the pus from a “mild case” of the disease. Probably not completely safe since the mild case could be the result of a strong patient rather than a weakened virus.

    2. Yes, the ‘variolation’, immunisation by actual smallpox was widespread before Jenner, in China (100CE) and later in India and the Ottoman Empire indeed.
      In Europe it was used in Zeeland (after which New Zealand is named). Variolation was not without dangers, but had generally a better outcome than the smallpox itself. Jenner used the much safer cowpox, that also gave immunity.
      Ironically we call the immunisation ‘vaccination’ after a disease caused by a closely related species, while nearly all modern vaccinations more closely resemble ‘variolation’, in the sense that the same species, dead, partial or disabled, is used.

  4. You realize that since you posted this, some anti-vaxxer is going to see it and we’re going to getting another uproar over “human-animal hybrids” from that crowd. 🙂 The anti-gmo people are already saying that peoples dna is being mutated, and now the anti-vaxxers are gonna get on the bandwagon.

    1. Tell the anti-vaxers that the injection is made up billions of teeny tiny prayers to god (of your choice).

      I’m not sure how ethical ‘lying for science’ is. Probably no worse than ‘lying for Jesus’?

  5. … Naomi Pierce, Harvard’s Curator of Lepidoptera.

    Is Harvard still home to Nabakov’s collection of butterflies (and of male butterfly genitalia)?

  6. Why does everyone continue to disregard Lady Mary Wortley Montague as the person who introduced smallpox inoculation to Britain —
    decades before Jenner? Is it because she was female? Is one going to quibble over ‘variolation’ versus ‘vaccination’? Each are forms of inoculation. There was much controversy generated by her advocacy of variolation. The history is extremely interesting and instructive

    Surely, Mr. Schenk will fault me for citing Wikipedia and regard t as a sign of my abysmal ignorance and credulity but I first learned about this in a biography of Alexander Pope, well before Wikipedia was even a dream in the mind of Jimmy Wales.

    1. Yes, for some reason she has been neglected by many people — she had a fascinating life, so far as I can tell. Thanks for the reminder.

    2. Lady Mary Wortley Montague introduced “variolation’ to England. The practice was long known from China (about 1000 CE) India the Ottoman Empire and ‘Zeeland’ (in what is now the Netherlands) -see my post above.
      Jenner introduced a smallpox inoculation using cow pox (vaca or vacca = cow, )hence ‘vaccination’.
      It urned out to be much safer than ‘variolation’, which was the great discovery of Jenner.

      1. Wikipedia, “Variolation used live smallpox virus in the pus taken from a smallpox blister in a mild case of the disease…”

  7. The cartoon reminds us of the ‘fake news’, so much in the spotlight today.
    Never ever a cow-like head or structure erupted from a vaccination.

Leave a Reply