Benjamin Franklin would scoff at anti-vaxxers

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online

As the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported Monday that the current measles outbreak has topped 120 cases and spread to 17 states, the decision of some parents not to vaccinate their children against such diseases remains at the forefront of the debate.

For a man named Ben, the issue is one that hits close to home. Ben was born and raised in a family of anti-vaxxers, led by his newspaper-publisher brother James. Although he was a rather influential figure, Ben opted not to weigh in on the debate – that is, until the loss of his son Francis Folger Franklin due to a preventable disease.

While Ben may have been able to save his son’s life through vaccination, the disease that killed the boy was not measles. Nor did his death occur this month, this year or even this century. No, Ben’s young child died of smallpox at the age of four. His death occurred in 1736. And his father was none other than Founding Father Benjamin Franklin.

A leading proponent of vaccination

In truth, the story of Franklin and his stance on vaccination isn’t quite as nice and tidy the beginning of this article would suggest. While he was not overtly an anti-vaccine advocate, he did remain silent on the topic after his brother’s newspaper publicly opposed the practice, calling it unsafe and asserting that clergy, like inoculation advocate and Puritan minister Cotton Mather, had no business getting involved in medicine.

According to a New York Times article by Dr. Howard Markel, author of the forthcoming book An Anatomy of Addiction, Franklin would eventually go on to become “one of the colonies’ leading proponents of inoculation, trumpeting his advocacy in the pages of his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette.”

In fact, when reporting on 72 Boston residents who were inoculated in March 1730, he said that only two died while “the rest have recovered perfect health.” Conversely, among those who had caught the disease the natural way, he added that roughly one-fourth of them perished.

“In the following decades Franklin compiled and published quantitative studies on inoculation’s value, working with several physicians at the Pennsylvania Hospital, an institution he helped found, and with the famed British clinician William Heberden,” added Dr. Markel, who is also a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan.

Franklin also established the Society for Inoculating the Poor Gratis in 1774 as a result of his concern for the high cost of the procedure (“more than many colonists’ annual income,” according to the Dr. Markel).

Debating vaccination is nothing new

It’s safe to say that Franklin was probably inspired in his pro-vaccination-quest most by the loss of his son.

Franklin didn’t make a conscious decision to not vaccinate Francis; the boy was simply recovering from another illness at the time and could not be inoculated, according to Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post. Even so, the incident “stuck with him so much that he went on to co-author a how-to guide on smallpox inoculation with a London physician.”

“Many parents in the 1700s avoided inoculating their children for fear of harming them – just as a minority of parents today refuse to vaccinate due to a drastic misunderstanding of the potential harms and benefits of a vaccination,” added Ingraham, formerly of the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center. “Franklin ultimately regretted not inoculating his own son.”

Fast forward to today, more than 200 years after the death of Francis Folger Franklin. The debate over whether or parents should vaccinate their children, and whether or not they should even have the right to decide the matter themselves, rages on, due in part to the claims of published reports that have long since been discredited.

Considering how similar the current situation is to that of Benjamin Franklin’s day, it seems fitting to conclude with the Founding Father’s own testimony on the matter, as written in his autobiography so many years ago.

“In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, 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 sake 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.”


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