Tag: inoculation

The Hospital Rock Engravings of Farmington, Connecticut

Vaccines are a lot safer than they used to be in the old days.

No, I’m not talking about the “crude brew” that was the original DTP vaccine.

This older vaccine used more antigens than the DTaP vaccine that replaced it, so could cause more side effects. Even before that though, there was less oversight of vaccine manufacturers in the early 20th century. This could lead to vaccines that were contaminated or which simply didn’t work.

That certainly was a problem with the early smallpox vaccine, which is typically considered to be the most dangerous vaccine ever routinely used.

Variolation and Smallpox

But even before the smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796, we had variolation.

While the smallpox vaccine involved the cowpox virus, variolation actually infected someone with smallpox. The idea was to give the person a milder form by exposing them to a weaker, or attenuated, form of the virus.

They got this weakened virus from the smallpox scabs of someone who had already recovered and:

  • blowing dried smallpox scabs into their nose
  • applying pus from smallpox scabs to a small puncture wound on their skin

Variolation worked, giving the person immunity to smallpox – if they survived.

Unfortunately, about 1 to 3% of people who underwent variolation died.

And people who had recently undergone variolation could be contagious, leading to smallpox epidemics.

So why did folks undergo variolation if they had a chance of dying from the procedure?

It’s simple.

A natural smallpox infection was so much more deadly. Up to 30% of people who got smallpox died, and many people eventually got caught up in the regular smallpox epidemics that plagued people in the pre-vaccine era.

The Hospital Rock Engravings of Farmington, Connecticut

We don’t have to worry about smallpox anymore.

Well, not about natural smallpox infections, since smallpox was eradicated back in 1980.

And there are many other diseases that we get vaccinated against, with it being extremely easy to get that protection, especially compared to what folks did in the old days.

Do you know how far folks went to make variolation safer?

“Every year, thousands undergo this operation, and the French Ambassador says pleasantly, that they take the small-pox here by way of diversion, as they take the waters in other countries. There is no example of any one that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England…”
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu On Small Pox in Turkey (1717)

They actually went to smallpox hospitals to get vaccinated, remaining in quarantine for up to three weeks so that they wouldn’t get others sick.

In Farmington, Connecticut, two doctors established the Todd-Wadsworth Smallpox Hospital and had a lot of success with variolation.

Patients were no longer starved before inoculation, and many had begun to doubt the efficacy and safety of vomiting, sweats, purges, mercurials (toxic mercury salts such as calomel), and bleeding which had previously weakened both inoculees and those who “took the pox in the natural way.”

Charles Leach, MD on Hospital Rock

There, up to 20 patients at a time stayed in quarantine to get variolated, as a smallpox epidemic hit nearby Boston.

Patients engraved their name on Hospital Rock in the late 1700s near Farmington.
Patients engraved their name on Hospital Rock in the late 1700s near Farmington. Photo by Keith Wilkens

Between 1792 and 1794, many who got variolated wrote their names on what is now known as Hospital Rock.

“Many have supposed that the names on this rock were those who had did of the small-pox, but this is a great mistake. Every name on the rock is that of a person who was living when the name was placed there. Norris Stanley lived to own ships which were captured in the war of 1812 by Algerian pirates and still later to receive from the United States an indeminity therefor amounting to a large sum.”

James Shepard on The Small Pox Hospital Rock

The nearby town of Durham seemed to go a different way.

Instead of an inoculation hospital, they had a pest house to quarantine folks with natural smallpox infections.

Adding to the history of smallpox in Connecticut – a smallpox burying ground in Guilford.

Why wasn’t variolation popular everywhere? Folks didn’t have to wait for the first vaccine for the anti-vaccine movement to get started.

What to Know About Smallpox and the Hospital Rock Engravings

Hundreds of people got safely inoculated against smallpox and left their names on Hospital Rock near Farmington, Connecticut just before Edward Jenner discovered the first smallpox vaccine.

More on the Hospital Rock Engravings

Who Was John Birch?

It is well known that the anti-vaccination movement is as old as the history of vaccines itself.

John Birch (B) and the other anti-vaccine heroes of the day on their way to fight the vaccination monster.
John Birch (B) and the other anti-vaccine heroes of the day on their way to fight the vaccination monster.

Don’t believe me?

Soon after Edward Jenner had developed his vaccine, in addition to simply convincing people that he had come up with a method of preventing small pox that was better than inoculation, he had to overcome those who were dead set against the idea of vaccination.

“Do not the men, the heroes—who first dared to stand forth to arrest the progress, and stop the fatal havoc of this most dreadful and destructive monster, and at length have bravely subdued and put him to flight with all his mighty host, merit an obelisk created to their fame, with their names inscribed upon it, in indelible characters, to be held in grateful remembrance through all future generations?

And are not these names Moseley, Rowley, Birch, Squirrel, Lipscomb?”

The Vaccination Monster

Among them was John Birch.

Arthur Allen, in his book, Vaccine, calls John Birch one of “Jenner’s earliest foes.”

Who Was John Birch?

John Birch believed that he had serious reasons to object to Jenner's smallpox vaccine.
John Birch believed that he had serious reasons to object to Jenner’s smallpox vaccine.

John Birch worked among the medical households of King George III’s children.

Specifically, he was the “Surgeon extraordinary to the Prince of Wales” at Spring-gardens. This is in contrast to the “Physicians in ordinary” that were on the regular staff of the British Royal Household and were in regular attendance.

And he believed that he had such “serious reasons” to object to Jenner’s smallpox vaccine that he wrote a report about it in 1804, which secured his place in anti-vaccine history.

Why was he against Jenner’s small pox vaccine?

His main argument was that “Inoculation, so perfectly understood, and so successfully managed as it was, ought not be abandoned for a mere Experiment…”

He left out the part that he made a lot of money inoculating patients against small pox. He also treated small pox patients – with electric current.

The only true statement here was that his arguments were fallacious.
The only true statement here was that his arguments were fallacious.

Not surprisingly, Birch also used many of the same arguments that we hear today:

  • vaccines are dangerous (they can have risks, but are very safe)
  • vaccines cause a host of vaccine-induced diseases (they don’t)
  • vaccines sometimes don’t work (yes, they don’t work 100% of the time, but they do work very well)

He also leaves out the part about small pox inoculation being a lot riskier than vaccination, although either was certainly better than being at risk for a natural small pox infection. Actually, he doesn’t leave that out. Birch goes out of his way to claim that inoculation is a safer practice!

Why should folks believe him?

Because he says that he was right to stick with a treatment that others had already given up on – “here I was unwilling to give up Experience for Experiment, wanting nothing more safe or certain than Mercury…”

“In all investments, and in all enquiries, Trust must ultimately prevail.”

John Birch 1804

Fortunately, the truth prevailed.

Russia became the first country to ban inoculation or variolation, transitioning in favor of vaccination with Jenner’s small pox vaccine, in 1805. This is around the same time as Birch published his anti-vaccine pamphlet. Other countries followed their lead.

Birch was wrong about mercury and he was wrong about the small pox vaccine.

The John Birch Society

Although some of the member of the John Birch Society are associated with some anti-vaccine ideas and conspiracy theories, they have nothing to do with Jenner’s John Birch.

The John Birch Society was founded by Robert Welch and named after John Morrison Birch, a missionary who is said to have been the first victim of the Cold War.

What to Know About John Birch

John Birch was one of the first anti-vaccinationists and fought against Edward Jenner’s new small pox vaccine.

More About John Birch

Save