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Saturday, March 22, 2008


Scott Moore

I thought you might appreciate this. I was quizzed about the accuracy of inoculation scene in the recent HBO John Adams miniseries and, in looking up sources, I came across concerns of the time regarding the need for inoculation.

Quickly, the procedure shown in the miniseries is accurate with regard to using fluid from a smallpox sore rubbed into a cut made on the arm. It was not until the 1790's and early 1800's that the safer cowpox inoculation (the original vaccination, from the Latin for "cow") spread from England through the world. I am willing to quibble that carting around someone with smallpox sores around in an open cart is not accurate since I found in letters by Abigail Adams that Boston (where the family went for inoculation July-August 1776) that there were restrictions on people who might be carriers of the disease.

As I was digging around, I found this quote touching:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret, that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the stake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it ; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, page 47

I haven't dug deep into all of the coo respondence between Abigail and John Adams, but starting with her letter of July 13, 1776 you can read how both considered it as the best option (John had been inoculated in 1764), to the point that three of the children were inoculated a second time to ensure they got smallpox. So great was the fear of catching small pox "the common way".

It seems to me that Benjamin Franklin and Abigail Adams faced a more difficult decision inoculating their children against smallpox than today's parents face against measles. Measles isn't smallpox (death rates of measles today is between .1% and 10% with developing nations higher and smallpox, in the 18thC, could kill 15%-30% of those infected) and we are far beyond the practices of the 18thC. But, like smallpox, measles *is* a human-only disease and there are parallels that might be drawn between the two in terms of parental choices, public health and the potential for complete eradication.

Anyway, I hope the look back is at the least entertaining and, maybe, allows these two parents from long ago to offer their experiences to today's parents.


Have you seen this "Letter to Ben Stein"?

a snippet:
I want to begin by pointing that your legacy, as a result of your work on this particular project, will be the suffering and early death of countless people who otherwise could have been saved or benefited from advances in science."

I have not read anything else by this blogger Alonzo Fyfe, but I thought I'd pass it on.

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