The latest episode of “No Bones About It,” The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s popular YouTube series, features historian Michael Willrich. Willrich recently spoke at the College for a well-attended History of Vaccines event and discussed his most recent book, POX: An American History, which chronicles the smallpox outbreaks at the turn of the 20th century. Before the event, he sat down with Robert Hicks, director of the Mütter Museum and the College’s Historical Medical Library, and the host of “No Bones About It.” In this episode, Hicks and Willrich discuss compulsory vaccination, the intersection between civil liberties and public health, and the beginnings of the American anti-vaccination movements in the late 19th century.
You can watch the complete episode of “No Bones About It” below. Willrich’s May 12 talk at the College was filmed by C-SPAN for BookTV, and should air soon; stay tuned to the History of Vaccines blog — we’ll post an update when the air date is announced! For more information on smallpox, see our smallpox timeline.
At the dawn of the activist Progressive era and during a moment of great optimism about modern medicine, the government responded to the deadly epidemic by calling for universal compulsory vaccination. To enforce the law, public health authorities relied on quarantines, pesthouses, and “virus squads”—corps of doctors and club-wielding police. Though these measures eventually contained the disease, they also sparked a wave of popular resistance among Americans who perceived them as a threat to their health and to their rights.
At the time, antivaccinationists were often dismissed as misguided cranks, but Willrich argues that they belonged to a wider legacy of American dissent that attended the rise of an increasingly powerful government. While a well-organized antivaccination movement sprang up during these years, many Americans resisted in subtler ways—by concealing sick family members or forging immunization certificates. POX introduces us to memorable characters on both sides of the debate, from Henning Jacobson, a Swedish Lutheran minister whose battle against vaccination went all the way to the Supreme Court, to C.P. Wertenbaker, a federal surgeon who saw himself as a medical missionary combating a deadly—and preventable—disease. As Willrich suggests, many of the questions first raised by the Progressive-era antivaccination movement are still with us: How far should the government go to protect us from peril? What happens when the interests of public health collide with religious beliefs and personal conscience? —Penguin Press
About the Author
Michael Willrich, PhD, is the author of City of Courts, which won the John H. Dunning Prize awarded by the American Historical Association for the best book on any aspect of U.S. history, and the William Nelson Cromwell Prize awarded by the American Society for Legal History. Currently an associate professor of history at Brandeis University, he worked for several years as a journalist in Washington, D.C., writing for The Washington Monthly, City Paper, The New Republic, and other magazines.
To see more episodes of “No Bones About It,” as well as the other original programming developed by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, visit the College’s YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/Themuttermuseum.