Here’s my August column for the estimable @HollandSentinel which, for some reason, keeps publishing my stuff…
I’m not a historian, but I enjoy reading history.
Like a lot of people today, I’ve been thinking about vaccinations, and so I decided to read some history about them, to understand why we are where we are—with only a little more than 50 percent of the population in the U.S. fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, well behind other countries like Canada and the U.K.
Similarly, more than a year ago, I found that reading about the history of pandemics was helpful. John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, a story about the 1918 influenza outbreak, provided some helpful insight into pandemics and how people have responded to them. (Hint: Some things never change.)
A few days ago, I learned that, when George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775, he discovered that the war was being waged on two fronts: one for independence from the British, and the other for survival against smallpox, a contagious, disfiguring, and often deadly disease. Curious, I decided to read further.
The earliest written description of a disease like smallpox appeared in China in the fourth century CE. But it wasn’t until the 1700s when serious attempts were made to inoculate people against the disease. An English physician, Edward Jenner, sometimes called “the father of immunology,” famously discovered that infecting people with the “cowpox” virus somehow conferred immunity to the smallpox virus. Not everyone rushed to receive these early—and sometimes deadly—inoculations.
Washington’s decision to vaccinate his troops—well before Jenner’s work was widely known—was a bold one and something of a gamble. But the gamble paid off: The scourge of smallpox held off long enough for Washington to defeat the British. (Not all of Washington’s military decisions, it should be noted, paid off quite as handsomely as this one.)
Vaccine development has continued slowly, though with remarkable speed in recent years. As recently as 1967, two million people worldwide were still dying each year from smallpox, but by 1979 that disease was largely eradicated, almost entirely because of a determined and costly effort to vaccinate the world’s population.
More than 20 years before Washington’s decision at Valley Forge, a clergyman named Jonathan Edwards (if you’ve heard of the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” then you’re thinking about the person I have mind) became president of the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University.
Edwards was one of the most important theologians of his era and, not incidentally, theologically conservative (consider that famous sermon title). But his interests ranged well beyond theology. He was deeply curious, for example, about the work of the English scientist Isaac Newton and embraced much of what was considered at the time to be “new science.” The breadth of his intellectual curiosity might put some pastors today to shame, though there doesn’t seem to be much shame today among pastors about the lack of intellectual curiosity.
When a wave of smallpox swept through Princeton, New Jersey, during the winter of 1757-58, Edwards famously sought out a vaccination and made his decision to be vaccinated public. The vaccination, administered by a reputable local doctor, seemed to go well, but then something went terribly wrong. Within 37 days of being vaccinated he was dead at the age of 54.
Edwards was never in the best of health, and other diseases may have contributed to his death. Edwards’ wife, who arrived in Princeton a month after Edwards’ death, contracted dysentery and died not long after. Edwards and his wife, Sarah Pierpont, are buried in Princeton Cemetery, a few blocks north of campus.
The story of Edwards’ unsuccessful vaccination has always been presented to me as an example of heroism and strong leadership. Edwards wanted to present himself as an example to his community by receiving the vaccination. Today, I suppose, some would regard Edwards a fool for receiving a vaccination that had not fared better in clinical trials. Like some of those who resist receiving the coronavirus vaccine today, he should have waited longer and demanded better data.
Or maybe not. I still believe that Edwards should be admired for his decision, just as those who have chosen to receive the coronavirus vaccination should be respected for their decisions. Great strides have obviously been made in immunology, but vaccinations were not then, and are not now, without risk. The risk from receiving the coronavirus vaccine, however, is vanishingly small. It has saved lives and could, if more of us received it, save even more.
Sometimes the decision to be vaccinated is a heroic one. It could even be considered a civic duty, a patriotic act, a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good.