Cincinnati Successfully Fought Anti-Vaxxers in the 1880s

Health officials and the local media advocated vaccinations to fight local smallpox outbreaks and to beat back “false and foolish” anti-vax propaganda.

Smallpox was dreadfully common in the late 1800s, killing hundreds of Cincinnatians every year. Health officers confined anyone who contracted smallpox—and their entire family—to the pest house, fumigated their residence, and waited for everyone to die. Vaccinations were available and effective, but an international movement worked to sour public opinion on this preventive method.

Cincinnati was awash in anti-vaccination propaganda during the 1880s, most of it originating in England and Germany, where public protests were common.

Illustrated Police News (June 1886), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Most of the anti-vaccination propaganda throughout the 1880s originated in England and Germany. With a substantial German population, one might expect Cincinnati to be fertile ground for planting the anti-vaccination impulse—but, in general, this was not the case. A couple of Cincinnati’s German-language newspapers groused about the “vaccination humbug,” and The Catholic Telegraph, with a heavy German readership, sat on the fence for decades, but they were overshadowed by the majority of Cincinnati newspapers.

A fair summary of Cincinnati opinion in the 1880s was provided by The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [May 11, 1882]:

“A parcel of cranks in this country and England have been preaching against vaccination. Their false and foolish pamphlets are flying in every mail. If it were not for vaccination, the small-pox would be a devastating plague. The fools who are fighting the scientific defense against it are flagrant mischief makers, and amount to public enemies.”

That sentiment was echoed by The Cincinnati Daily Gazette, normally a political opponent of The Commercial Tribune, on February 20, 1882:

“It is the darling object of the ‘antis’ to abolish compulsory vaccination in Germany and England, and to prejudice people everywhere against it. They are no doubt sincere, but their misrepresentation of facts and distortion of statistics appear to show that they think the end justifies the means. A more cruel work was never undertaken than this deliberate attempt to induce whole communities to take a course which is little better than suicide.”

By 1880, vaccination for smallpox was anything but new. Vaccination in one form or another had been practiced in Asia and Africa for centuries before Western medicine paid attention. Edward Jenner, an English physician generally credited with creating the first safe vaccine, inoculated his first patient in 1796. Cincinnati newspapers began promoting vaccination as early as 1805.

Vaccination, although commonly practiced, was mysterious and haphazard throughout the 1800s. No one understood the mechanism that propelled smallpox into such a lethal disease. Viruses were not discovered until well into the 20th century. Medical doctors lacked a monopoly on vaccinations, or any medical treatments for that matter. Barbers, midwives, patent-medicine quacks, and sometimes outright amateur inoculators wandered the city “vaccinating” patients for a small fee. The result was a morass of misinformation caused by “vaccinated” residents who died from smallpox. On investigation, it was proven that these unfortunate victims had been so improperly exposed to the smallpox virus that they developed no immunity at all.

There was no standardization and no quality control because no one, at that time, had any idea what was in the vaccine. This uncertainty spawned a plethora of myths, repeated continually by the anti-vaccination organizations. The Daily Gazette [February 24, 1882] summarized the anti-vax arguments:

“An effusion which reached us yesterday from the office of the Anti-Vaccination League endeavors to prove that it is foolish to be alarmed over the prevalence of smallpox, since it is not nearly so ‘catching’ as most people believe; that it does not increase the number of deaths, but merely replaces other diseases which would be present did it not appear; that vaccination is as much a humbug as magical arts, resulting only in discomfort and danger to the person who undergoes the operation; and, finally, that the attacks of smallpox are limited to a small portion of any population, chiefly its dregs.”

All this debate swirled through the pages of local newspapers while residents died by the hundreds. Cincinnati lost 1,249 people to the depredations of smallpox in 1882. Periodic outbreaks were common: 640 deaths in 1868, 1,179 deaths in 1871, 927 deaths in 1876. The Cincinnati Post [November 23, 1882] claimed most of the deaths from smallpox afflicted the immigrant community:

“Foreigners coming to Cincinnati refuse to be vaccinated. It is feared that small-pox will rage disastrously among this class of citizens. A prominent Hebrew said to a Penny Paper reporter yesterday that he would not be surprised to see every Russian refugee in this city die of small-pox this winter. They live in thickly populated tenement houses and refuse to be vaccinated, even so far as to give up their positions in stores and factories where vaccination is made obligatory.”

Cincinnati did not pass laws mandating vaccination, but employers and schools did require it, resulting in almost universal acceptance of the practice.

Illustrated Police News (July 1886), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Many of Cincinnati’s fatalities involved unvaccinated children. In his annual report for 1882, Cincinnati health officer D.D. Bramble emphasized this horrendous statistic:

“It is in the young, unvaccinated portion of our population that small-pox mortality chiefly occurs. Statistics show 56 per cent of deaths are in children under five years of age, and as much as 70 per cent in children under 10 years that have neglected vaccination. It is needless for me to illustrate how recklessly the loathsome contagion is spread among the people.”

And, of course, there were ironies. As reported in The Commercial Tribune [October 12, 1883]:

The London Medical News reports the suicide of a leading anti-vaccine agitator in England. Last summer the small-pox broke out in his family and carried off his wife and three children. The loss preyed upon his mind, and he completed the extinction of his family by self-destruction.”

Although Cincinnati officials and the Ohio legislature declined to mandate vaccinations for everyone, eventually schools and employers required vaccination, which amounted to the same thing. Data piled up ever higher to prove that vaccination really did stop the fatal consequences of smallpox, typhus, and other diseases. The Enquirer [December 8, 1882] stated its hope that logic, facts, and proof would ultimately prevail against the disinformation, rumors, and balderdash that constituted the anti-vaccination platform:

“During his official term the Health Officer has examined into 100 small-pox cases for the purpose of gathering some data regarding the efficacy of vaccination. Of the 100 people suffering from the loathsome disease he found that 70 had never been vaccinated, while the remaining 30 had suffered the simple ordeal so long ago that its virtue had entirely died out. These figures ought to prove a blow to the anti-vaccination society.”

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