Evolutionary Thinker Slams Vaccination!

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By | From the Collections

The Wellcome Library’s Archives and Manuscripts department recently purchased a manuscript letter accompanied by a printed pamphlet by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). This letter has been added to our small group of writings by the great naturalist, explorer, geographer, biologist and anthropologist (see MS.7798 and MS.7830/54-59).

Wallace was virulently against small-pox vaccination and expressed his views in the forthright pamphlet ‘The Army and Navy: A Demonstration of the Uselessness of Vaccination’ published by the National Anti-Vaccination League (c.1898) (MS.7798/5). Slamming the practice of re-vaccinating males entering the military services, Wallace insisted that any reduction in Army and Navy small-pox mortality was due in fact to much better sanitation and a great improvement in the food, general treatment and medical attention. He insists the statistics show that “it is the exceptionally unvaccinated that possess the exceptional advantages, while the ‘exceptionally re-vaccinated’ Army and Navy show quite exceptional disadvantages…” in small-pox mortality over the last twenty years. In addition to being scientifically unproven and insufficiently understood, Wallace claimed that vaccination was dangerous because of the dirty conditions in which it was often carried out. Compulsory vaccination (introduced in 1853) was an “injurious operation”, a “Gigantic Medical Imposture”, and was being promoted by doctors driven by economic interests and a government bent on interfering with personal liberty.

In this pamphlet Wallace keenly criticises the report of the Royal Commission of 1884, which ultimately found that vaccination was effective and should remain compulsory. Interestingly, his attack focuses on the apparent denial, misinterpretation and manipulation of disease and mortality statistics. As we can tell from his letter to William Young on 14th June 1884 (MS.7798/4), Wallace was indeed concerned about using valid and accurate statistics. He tells Young that he cannot put his name to an anti-vaccination pamphlet unless he can personally “verify the facts & figures from the original authorities”. In reality however, ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’ were used by both pro and anti vaccination camps to support their arguments and disparage each other. The 1884 Royal Commission found discrepancies in the statistical evidence Wallace had submitted and The Lancet pointed out that the 1898 pamphlets he put his name to (including ‘Vaccination a Delusion’) repeated much of the erroneous information that they had condemned in 1884!

It seems that whilst Wallace was right to point out the risks of vaccinating in a filthy environment, and the tangible benefits resulting from improved sanitation, food and medical treatment, he was, it turns out, on the loser’s side of the vaccination issue. Considering Wallace’s interest and opinions covered a wide range of issues it is not surprising that he was instinctively right about some things – natural selection, the impact of human activities on the natural world – but on distinctly dodgy ground with his views on mesmerism, phrenology and spiritualism.

Author: Amanda Engineer

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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One Response to Evolutionary Thinker Slams Vaccination!
  • Evidence Matters


    “he was, it turns out, on the loser’s side of the vaccination issue”

    Was he or do I not understand what you mean by this? After all, the conscientious objection clause was introduced into the Vaccination Act of 1898 as a direct response to all of the civil and political agitation and it removed the penalties for non-vaccination of infants. So, it seems as if in his own terms, Wallace may have been on the right side.

    The popularisation of Pasteur's work forced a radical re-think as to the insanitary conditions of many of the vaccination stations and practices. Many protesters argued that it was the infection and injury caused by the vaccination that left too many working men or soldiers/sailors enfeebled and unfit for work, at least on a temporary basis.

    Everybody at that time seems to have been using unfit statistics and trading them with acrimony.

    Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is an active participant in the Times letters pages – trading views with the anti-vaccination proponents of the day who claimed that smallpox vaccination had nothing to do with the decline in smallpox numbers and that it was all down to a widespread improvement of living conditions (similarly to Wallace).

    Garrett Anderson claimed that the vaccination programme had made a substantial difference to morbidity and mortality figures and argued that if it were just living conditions then there would also have been a concomitant improvement in the diphtheria numbers but there wasn't.

    Other correspondents wrote in to lambaste her and present their viewpoint that the difference in smallpox numbers was due to the sequestration of those with the infection on smallpox ships and other such measures.

    Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, Wallace is wrong but it is perhaps unfair to second guess what his response might have been in response to later discoveries and refinements of the vaccination programme.

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