The Vaccination Controversy: The Rise, Reign, and Fall of Compulsory Vaccination for Smallpox

By Stanley Williamson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 14
A LOATHSOME VIRUS

As has been noted, condemnation of compulsory vaccination dates from shortly after the passage of the Act of 1853, with the letter from John Gibbs to the President of the Board of Health. Born in Ireland in 1811, Gibbs was described by an acquaintance as 'sagacious, bright, earnest and independent', with a passion for 'such things as made for human welfare and improvement'. He became interested in hydropathy and in particular in its use in cases of smallpox. In later life he made his home in St Leonards, in Sussex. His influential letter to the Board of Health was based on a pamphlet that he had published in 1854 under the title 'Our Medical Liberties'.

'The partisans of compulsory vaccination,' he wrote, 'cast away every gentlemanly feeling, disregard every principle of justice, violate the spirit of freedom, outrage the precepts of Christianity, trample upon common sense, betray their own rights and dearest interests.'1 After this comprehensive denunciation he took each item in turn and expanded it, occasionally in the repetitive fashion that became one of the continuing characteristics and weaknesses of the whole long campaign.

The compulsory Vaccination Act, he asserted, was

the first direct aggression upon the person of the subject in medical
matters which has been attempted in these kingdoms. It invades in
the most unexampled manner the liberty of the subject and the
sanctity of the home […] it sets at nought parental responsibility
and constrains the parent either to violate his deliberate convic-
tions, and even his religious scruples, or to defy an unjust law.

Why was vaccination held in horror by so many parents and others?

They do not believe that it affords an efficient and assured protec-
tion against the invasion of small-pox: they have a natural disgust

-179-

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