Meet the vegetarian anti-vaxxers who led the smallpox inoculation backlash in Victorian Britain
The cow bag - or the wonderful effects of the new vaccination! (1802) by James Gillray. Wikipedia
With the world hoping for a new vaccine against COVID-19, it's easy to forget how controversial these life-saving treatments have been throughout history. People may have heard some of the divisive and controversial arguments of today's anti-Vaxxers. But it may be more surprising to learn that vegetarians and animal rights activists had a significant backlash when the first smallpox vaccines were introduced almost 200 years ago.
When smallpox vaccination was introduced in England in 1840, the government canceled vaccination with the live smallpox virus, which was taken from the blisters of people with the infection. The live virus was dangerous because it infected people with smallpox, putting it at risk of death, disfigurement and the spread of smallpox to an area that was previously free of disease.
This made cowpox lymph the only option. Here, lymph with white blood cells fighting the disease is extracted from calves vaccinated with smallpox. The use of calf lymph (also taken from bladders) was not acceptable to vegetarians and anti-vivisectionists, the number of which increased from the mid-19th century.
Veal lymph vaccine, London, England, 1956. Wellcome Images, CC BY
Smallpox vaccination became compulsory for children in England in 1853. In the following years, groups emerged across England who opposed vaccination. They had formed a more structured movement in the mid-1860s under the leadership of Richard Butler Gibbs, a well-known vegetarian and food reformer.
Many of the leading opponents of compulsory smallpox vaccination had links to the vegetarian movement at the time. These included Francis William Newman (Cardinal Newman's brother), William White, James John Garth Wilkinson, William Scott Tebb, Councilor JT Biggs and Dr. Walter R. Hadwen - all were vegetarians.
Portrait of Francis William Newman (1805-1897), the English classical scholar, writer and vegetarian. Wikimedia / NPG
Studies have shown that many also belonged to non-conformist groups, including Unitarians, Swedenborgians, Quakers and spiritualists. Some may have been part of the Cowherdite Bible Christians, a vegetarian sect based in Salford. The clergyman who preached the moral virtues of vegetarianism was Rev. William Cowherd, and his beef steak chapel was the country's first vegetarian church. A list of members of the Vegetarian Society from 1848 shows that 136 of 265 members were 136 cowherdites. However, it is difficult to say with certainty how many of them were against the smallpox vaccine.
Compulsory vaccination was introduced in Scotland in 1864, and like England, the mood against vaccination began to manifest itself within a few years. My own research included examining the few existing Scottish records kept at Edinburgh University. My studies have shown that membership of the Scottish Anti-Vaccination League (SAVL) included lawyers, local businesspeople, traders, and non-conformist clergy, in addition to working class members.
Some of the leading Scottish anti-vaccines also had links to vegetarian societies. William James Begg, joint secretary of the SAVL, was a member of the committee of the Scottish Vegetarian Society, which shared its premises with Begg's offices in 1896. Two other members of the SAVL committee were also vegetarians.
Vegetarian associations and publications
Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow were all places where vegetarian restaurants and vaccination activities became established in the 1890s. Between 1870 and 1900, vegetarian associations emerged in Aberdeen, Arbroath, Dundee, Dumfries, Dunfermline, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
In November 1903, a publication was published for the first time that primarily supported a vegetarian lifestyle - The Scottish Health Reformer and Advocate of Rational Living. It promoted a healthy lifestyle, included a regular vegetarian cooking function, and gave voice to Scottish anti-vaccines.
The publication promoted Scottish League membership, included adverts, reported on their meetings, and sold anti-vaccine propaganda material. And in February 1905, the Scottish anti-vaccination movement had a monthly column.
Another vegetarian sympathizer for vaccinations and a frequent contributor to the Scottish Health Reformer was Agnes S. Hunter - the widow of Dr. Archibald Hunter. Dr. Hunter had set up a hydropathic facility in Bridge of Allan, near Stirling, that offered “remedies” based on fresh air, water, and a vegetarian diet.
Agnes Hunter. The Vaccination Inquiry and Public Health Journal (1915)
Agnes Hunter took charge after his death and was a prolific writer and speaker. A brochure called No More Vaccination, which she wrote in 1905, was advertised in the Scottish Health Reformer. She found that the vaccination was "... legal fraud, medical deception, illogical absurdity, and an abominable crime against the nation".
The conscientious exemption from vaccination was permitted in England from 1898, although the law was not extended to Scotland. The SAVL seriously campaigned for the abolition of the vaccination law. The anti-vaccination and vegetarian networks ensured that English sympathizers wrote letters to the Scottish press and made lectures in Scotland.
Anti-vaccines across the UK had networks where they could learn and share experiences. The campaign by the English and Scottish anti-Vaxxers to abolish vaccination laws was partially successful when the conscience clause was finally extended to Scotland in 1907. The abolition of compulsory smallpox vaccination was finally achieved with the establishment of the National Health Service in 1947.
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Sylvia Valentine does not work for companies or organizations that would benefit from this article, and does not consult or receive stock from or funds. In addition to her academic appointment, she has announced no relevant affiliations.
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