an anti-vaccination pamphlet from the USA (c.1894)
Thomas Williamson was clearly frustrated at finding himself before the magistrate at the Hampstead Police Court. As a member of London’s growing middle-class the insurance agent (who must have known a thing or to about risk) was summoned by the local vaccination officer for not allowing his daughter to be inoculated against small pox.
The officer, Charles Weekley, stated that Louise Elizabeth Williamson, who had be born a year earlier in October 1882, had still not be vaccinated as the law required. The family had been sent several notices but all of them had been ignored, moreover Weekley had himself visited the Williamsons only to be told that they refused to vaccinate Louise because they ‘did not approve of it’.
Weekley had informed the local Board of Guardians and they applied for the summons; Williamson had then been given a further six weeks grace to comply with the injunction to have his child vaccinated but had still steadfastly refused. The result was this very public appearance before Major-General Agnew and Mr Gotto, the presiding magistrates at Hampstead.
In his defence Mr Williamson said that it was not him who objected but his wife. He argued that until the child reached the age of seven she was Mrs Williamson’s responsibility and he was unable to persuade his spouse to agree to something she so was set against.
It should not come as a surprise that parents were occasionally (or even frequently) reluctant to have their children vaccinated in the late 1800s. There had been widespread resistance earlier in the century when Edward Jenner had first proposed infecting people with ‘cowpox’ to prevent smallpox. The treatment itself may have deterred some while others thought it ‘unchristian’ and abhorrent to introduce animal germs into a human child. We should remember that many Victorians distrusted doctors and had much less faith in science than we do today.
But it was also a question of personal liberty and many people felt it was simply not the business of the state to interfere in family life. Today we are well-used to politicians bemoaning the so-called ‘nanny state’ and for calls for greater freedom from regulations even if this is not now generally applied to healthcare.
That said there has been a long running campaign against the MMR vaccination which was based on false rumours that the injection was linked to colitis and autism. The campaign was founded on a fraudulent science paper (published in the Lancet in 1998) which was later retracted. It has been described as “perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years” and since the retraction the government have been trying to reboot the vaccination programme. Sadly, it appears not everyone has got the message: Donald Trump (that well-known authority on all things medical) has linked back to the the now discredited research to make links between vaccination and autism.
Back at Hampstead Police Court poor Mr Williamson was rebuked by one of the magistrates for his inability to rule his own roost. ‘You are the father of the child, and master in your own house’, Major-General Agnew told him.
‘I can’t take the child out of her arms, or use force. No act of parliament will allow me to do that.’ protested the insurance man.
‘That argument, I’m afraid will not hold water’ replied the Major-General.
Mr Gotto was a little more conciliatory: ‘Surely your wife would prefer it [the vaccination] being done to you being fined, or sent to prison?’ he asked.
Mr Williamson agreed that he had already had his elder children vaccinated in compliance with the law but both ‘had suffered from it’. The bench ignored this last plea and fined him 10s including costs, warning him that he must comply or be summoned again. The man left court to bring the unhappy news back to his wife, I wonder how that conversation went.
[from The Morning Post (London, England), Thursday, October 25, 1883]
for other blogs on this subject see: