A parent is unconvinced by the theory of vaccination


The Cow Pock by James Gillray (1802) satirizes the campaign against vaccination

Many of the cases that came before the Police Courts actually had little resemblance to anything we might today call ‘crime’ but there was plenty that might come under the general banner of regulation.

In recent years there has been something of a campaign against vaccination – specifically the MMR jab which was rumored (incorrectly) to cause autism. Vaccination was pioneered in the early 19th century by Edward Jenner and people were quick to ridicule his efforts. Jenner successfully found a vaccination for small pox, a disease that had killed thousands in Britain and Europe.

Even by the later 1800s not everyone was convinced that vaccination worked or was desirable. The government was convinced and acted to make vaccination compulsory by a series of statutes from 1867 to 1873. However there was considerable disquiet about this and many people simply refused to present their children to the parish officers for their injections. As a result plenty of parents found themselves in court facing a magistrate.

John Forster Howe was one such father. Howe appeared at Greenwich Police Court in September 1881 charged with ‘disobeying an order of the court to have his child vaccinated’. The Vaccination Officer confirmed the facst before Mr. Howe offered a spirited defense of why he felt the prosecution was unjustified and vaccination inappropriate.

He gave no less than eight reasons:

“Because we believe the theory of vaccination to be unsupported by sufficient evidence”; statistics could be shown to have ‘intensified the evil’ not lessened, it, and there was no proof it had stopped small pox. He rejected the idea that the best way to prevent a disease was to infect a child with that very same disease. The dangers involved here far outweighed the limited risk of catching small pox itself.

He also (and this echoes modern complaints) felt it undermined his ‘liberty of conscience’ (his freedom to choose in other words). So for him a refusal to obey a bad law was the best way to bring about much ‘needed reforms’.

It was a sterling defense and the newspaperman reported it verbatim. It did him no good, the justice fined him 20s plus 2s costs. Howe said he was happy to pay but would never comply with the law.

[from Daily News , Monday, September 19, 1881]

2 thoughts on “A parent is unconvinced by the theory of vaccination

  1. Well, you certainly turn up some fascinating material! I am aware in more recent times of people brought to court because their religious beliefs prevent doctors carrying out procedures which the doctors feel essential to a child’s well-being, but your example sheds a very different light on the use of courts in the 1800s. Thanks!


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