Victorian Opponents to Vaccination

Updated on January 5, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In 1796, the British doctor, Edward Jenner, proved the effectiveness of vaccination against smallpox. Almost immediately, there was opposition, as an article in Discover Magazine reports, “Most of it came from middle-class citizens who didn’t trust government, science, or medicine.”

More than 200 years later, many people still oppose vaccination in the face of overwhelming evidence that the procedure saves vast numbers of lives.

Edward Jenner vaccinates a child while an interested cow looks in through the window.
Edward Jenner vaccinates a child while an interested cow looks in through the window. | Source

Jenner Faces Opposition

Dr. Jenner observed that milkmaids seemed immune to smallpox because they were exposed to cowpox, a much milder illness. This protected them against the much more serious and frequently deadly smallpox.

Then, came the experiment on eight-year-old James Phipps. As described by the BBC it does sound pretty gross: “Jenner inserted pus taken from a cowpox pustule and inserted it into an incision on the boy’s arm.” Young Master Phipps was thus made immune to smallpox.

The first opposition came from the Royal Society that said Jenner’s experiment was too revolutionary.

Then, clergymen thundered from their pulpits that it was repulsively un-Christian to insert a substance from a diseased cow into anyone. Soon, a cartoon appeared showing vaccinated people growing bovine heads.

Eventually, the scientific community recognized that Dr. Jenner was onto something of immense public value. But, the anti-vaxxers weren’t done. Not by a long measure.

Satirist James Gilray ridicules vaccination by showing cow parts sprouting out of human bodies.
Satirist James Gilray ridicules vaccination by showing cow parts sprouting out of human bodies. | Source

Attacks on Vaccination

In Britain, laws were passed making vaccination compulsory and riots followed as enraged citizens rose up in high dudgeon.

Pamphlets appeared with suitably starting titles: “The Horrors of Vaccination,” or “Vaccination, a Curse.”

Conspiracy theories developed that the upper classes were somehow foisting vaccination on the lower orders as a way of controlling them. Of course, the church continued to promise hellfire and brimstone for those who disobeyed the natural law of God.

And, there were tragedies. Vaccines were not as safe as they are today so, sometimes, the outcomes were fatal, adding evidence that the skeptical latched onto as proof the treatment was dangerous.

The practice of medicine was quite primitive at the time with the belief that some diseases were caused by smelly air (the Miasma Theory). Sudden changes in temperature and wet feet were also identified as culprits. Germ theory didn’t make an appearance until the 1880s.

More catoonish hysteria about vaccination.
More catoonish hysteria about vaccination. | Source

The Leicester Anti-Vaccination League

Leicester was a large industrial city in the British Midlands; a community of factories belching smoke, overflowing cesspools, and slums. Leicester was the sort of place in which diseases found it easy to take hold and spread.

By an act of parliament, children had to be vaccinated against smallpox, with fines dished out to families that refused. The folks in Leicester strongly objected to what they saw as a heavy-handed attack on their rights. The city’s people had a long tradition of opposing edicts from outside.

The doctor extols the virtue of vaccinations he has given to the Jones family. The lady of the house retorts that “We do not care to be mixed up with the Joneses in any way.”
The doctor extols the virtue of vaccinations he has given to the Jones family. The lady of the house retorts that “We do not care to be mixed up with the Joneses in any way.” | Source

Led by non-conformist preachers, citizens formed The Leicester (later National) Anti-Vaccination League in 1869. Its campaigning succeeded in cutting the vaccination rate among children from 90 percent in 1872 to just three percent in 1892.

But, those who refused vaccination paid a price. According to an article in The Lancet, “By 1889, there had been over 6,000 prosecutions in Leicester, resulting in fines in over 3,000 cases and imprisonment in 64.”

By March 1885, opposition to vaccination, and the penalties visited on those who refused it, had reached boiling point. Under the leadership of the Anti-Vaccination League a massive protest was organized. Banners for demonstrators were created, some of which read:

  • “Parental affection before despotic law;”
  • “Defend your liberty of conscience: better a felon’s cell than a poisoned babe;”
  • “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Organizers claimed the crowd was 100,000 strong; historians say it was more like 20,000, still a sizable gathering.

In Market Square they heard speeches from prominent anti-vaxxers and an effigy of Dr. Edward Jenner was tossed around. A good time was had by all, and the people of Leicester ousted local politicians in the elections that followed.

Opponents to vaccination replaced the unseated leaders and immediately stopped the punishments meted out to those who refused the inoculating jabs.


Smallpox in Boston.

Early in the 20th century, Boston, Massachusetts was dealing with an outbreak of smallpox. Public health officials were trying to contain the disease by urging people to get vaccinated, but were meeting with resistance based on fear and misinformation.

Dr. Samuel H. Durgin was Chair of the Boston Board of Health. He issued a statement via The Boston Globe: “If there are among the adult and leading members of the antivaccinationists any who would like an opportunity to show the people their sincerity in what they profess, I will make arrangements by which that belief may be tested and the effect of such exhibition of faith by exposure to smallpox without vaccination be made clear.”

Local doctor, Immanuel Pfeiffer, stepped forward to take the challenge. He had earlier expressed the opinion that healthy people were immune to smallpox. So, he went to an isolation hospital on Gallops Island where smallpox patients were being treated.

He caught the disease and very nearly died from it. But, such is the irrational conviction among anti-vaxxers that they are right that Dr. Pfeiffer continued his opposition to vaccination.

More than 200 years after the efficacy of vaccination was proved, there are still many people who distrust the process and refuse to accept it.

Bonus Factoids

  • Before vaccination, there was variolation. It was a technique developed in China in the 15th century as a defence against smallpox. Dried scabs from a smallpox sufferer were pulverized and blown up a person’s nose. The idea was the individual would get a mild does of smallpox but emerge with immunity to the disease. It was not without risk, killing between one and two percent of the people treated. However, the death rate from full-on smallpox was 30 percent.
  • Dr. Edward Jenner called his treatment vaccination, by building on the Latin word for cow, “vacca.”
  • The Pacific island nation of Samoa, population 200,000, has a low vaccination rate, partly due the efforts of Edwin Tamasese, a traditional healer with no modern medical training. In late 2019, a measles epidemic swept through the country with more than 5,600 people infected. By the end of the year, there were 81 deaths, most of them children.



  • “The Long History of America’s Anti-Vaccination Movement.” Sara Novak, Discover Magazine, November 26, 2018.
  • “Pox: An American History.” Michael Willrich, Penguin, 2011.
  • “Variolation.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 30, 2013.
  • “A Crazy Dare in 1902 Helped Ignite the Anti-Vaxxer Movement.” Jason Feifer, Vice News, September 13, 2017.
  • “Edward Jenner (1749 - 1823).” BBC, 2014.
  • “The Leicester Anti-Vaccination Movement.” J.D. Swales, The Lancet, October 24, 1992.
  • “The Fight Against Vaccination: The Leicester Demonstration of 1885.” Christopher Charlton, Local Population Studies, undated.
  • “The Victorian Anti-Vaccination Movement.” Elizabeth Earl, The Atlantic, July 15, 2015.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor


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    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 

      5 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      Very interesting hub, Rupert. I liked your excellent summary of the problem, the photos, and video, very entertaining.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      6 months ago from Ohio

      I did not know anti-vaxxers have been around for so long. Almost 150 years!! I'm very impressed by how the Chinese dealt with small pox in the 1500s. I'm also impressed with Dr. Jenner. I loved the line in the beginning, "an article in Discover Magazine reports, “Most of it came from middle-class citizens who didn’t trust government, science, or medicine.” It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.


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