By Jennifer Craig, PhD
The idea that one disease, (cowpox) could prevent infection by another disease, (smallpox) was a rumor amongst dairymaids. Veterinarians and country physicians of the time knew the rumor was not true and it could easily have been disproved by simply asking patients with smallpox if they had had cowpox. But Jenner, although informed otherwise, was unwilling to believe the idea was false. He went ahead to test the theory on a single subject by spreading pus from cowpox sores into cuts he made in the arms of an eight-year old boy. The boy not only became ill, he developed ulcers on his arms that took months to heal. A few weeks later, he spread smallpox pus into more cuts. The boy did not get smallpox and thus the idea of smallpox vaccination was born.
Poland and Jacobson’s first salvo, “In the 19th century, despite clear evidence of benefit, routine inoculation with cowpox to protect people against smallpox was hindered by a burgeoning anti-vaccination movement,” is simply not true. Apart from the obvious question of why most people did not accept this new treatment until citizens were forced into vaccination by the 1853 Compulsory Vaccination Act, the authors present nothing to back up their claim of “clear evidence” or any references to support their allegations. The most likely reason for this omission is there was no clear evidence of benefit – nor is there any clear benefit today.