Michael Willrich | G Force

Smallpox history still resonates

(Dari Michele)
April 11, 2011

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Q. It’s been more than 30 years since we stopped vaccinating American children for smallpox, yet you say the subject is still current. What makes it a contemporary issue?

A. [The history of the smallpox vaccine involves] concerns about freedom of belief, freedom of the body, medical liberty, medical privacy — concerns that are very much with us today. The number of parents in the US who have been refusing or delaying one or more of their children’s vaccines has risen dramatically during the past decade.

Q. Why do you think so many people are anxious about vaccines?

A. It’s a kind of visceral thing. It seems unnatural [to get vaccinations]. You put this up against the fact that the diseases being guarded against just aren’t present in the community, and parents feel, “Why should I have my children exposed to whatever risks are involved in vaccines to protect them and a larger community from a disease that doesn’t seem to be a threat anyway?’’

Q. And the point of your book is that this anxiety about vaccines has a historical precedent — that it doesn’t come out of nowhere?

A. Exactly. American history shows that the American people’s ambivalence about vaccines has been caused by a variety of different factors, not all of them irrational.

Q. You write that the major controversy over smallpox vaccination came at the beginning of the 20th century, when the government required everyone — adults and children — to be vaccinated.

A. Massive resistance to compulsory vaccination came not just from parents, but also from workers who feared that the vaccine would swell up their arm and prevent them from working for several days, losing wages that wouldn’t be compensated. There were African-Americans who had simply no good reason to trust the white medical profession. They fled, they lied, they escaped, they refused to be vaccinated, they sometimes rioted. Parents in cities across America actually kept their kids from attending school so they wouldn’t need to be vaccinated.

Q. And now most of these diseases — certainly smallpox and polio, but largely measles and whooping cough, too — just aren’t seen in big numbers anymore.

A. Even in the medical profession there are fewer and fewer doctors who can remember what smallpox looks like. People are being asked to take it on faith [that vaccines are important] to an extent that they really weren’t a century ago. All of these diseases that used to be very present in Americans’ lives are no longer so present. Measles in particular, whooping cough . . . these are diseases that can be very, very serious, especially for young children. Vaccines are to some extent a victim of their own success.

Q. What do you think should be done about parents’ worries?

A. I think we need to take parental concerns about vaccines very seriously. There’s definitely been a lot of misinformation about vaccines out there.

Q. Do you think vaccines are safe today? Would you vaccinate your own children?

A. My kids are fully vaccinated and I believe quite strongly in the responsibility of parents to get their children fully vaccinated for the good of their children, and for the good of all of the children and people around them. I think that vaccines today are quite safe. No vaccine is perfectly safe — I think public health officials and the medical community will readily concede that. But vaccines are an incredibly important public good.


This interview was edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at

Michael Willrich
Willrich, an associate professor of history at Brandeis University, has just published a book, “Pox: An American History,’’ on the controversial history of the smallpox vaccine in the United States.

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