The Victorian Anti-Vaccination movement in England

As part of my background reading about the roles of nineteenth century pharmacists in Victoria (roles such as opticians or dentists) I’ve been reading about the nineteenth century anti vaccination movement in England.

No one seems to have studied the movement much in Australia, and I’m unsure if there was much opposition to compulsory vaccination in Victoria.

Certainly, a quick and dirty search of Trove suggests that while some people may have been opposed, generally most people were in favour.

What is interesting is where the movement sits.

Nineteenth century medicine was not actually very scientific – it was a mixture of herbalism and optimism – doctors had found some things seemed to alleviate some illnesses but no one was very sure as to the causes of illness – not really until the discovery of viruses and a greater understanding bacterial illnesses in the late nineteenth century was there anything resembling a modern understanding of the role of viruses and bacteria in spreading disease.

So, for example, people knew smallpox vaccination worked, but actually did not know how it worked or how smallpox spread.

The major competing theory with germ theory was the miasma theory where the infection spread through the air in some unknown way.

This was not a completely stupid idea – the idea that disease circulated in a community and was spread by close contact, made a lot of sense, as did the consequent need for cleanliness and being careful to avoid contact with diseased people.

And in a slightly roundabout way the miasma theory gave rise to various movements that advocated for access to fresh air and sunshine (and strangely enough, nudism) all of which were generally good things.

At the same time, given the very imperfect understanding of how smallpox spread and the use of the ‘arm’ method where infected lymph as collected from the pustules of people who had been recently vaccinated and then used to vaccinate next group to be vaccinated, that contamination could happen and various dire diseases such as syphilis could be inadvertently spread – syphilis being an especially important worry to a Victorian due to both the moral stigma attached to it and that was incurable and could infect one’s children.

Understandably, some people did not want to be vaccinated under such circumstances, and in England at least, if you could not pay to have your children vaccinated, they would be vaccinated by the same doctor who oversaw the local workhouse, and possibly someone who did not command the respect of the community, and who because of his (and it would always be a man) association with the workhouse might be suspected of using lymph from individuals who were also carrying other diseases.

There were of course cranks who advocated strange cures based on vegetables and being doused with cold water or held bizarre beliefs, but it’s important to realise that given the state of knowledge at the time, the worries about compulsory vaccination were rational.

I suspect that the seeming lack of a strong anti-vaccination movement in Victoria might be due to the government appointing various local doctors as public vaccinators, free from any taint of association with the poor and indigent …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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