Ben Franklin's Anguish: The Origin of the Modern Vaccine Cult

Examining Franklin's reaction to the death of his son from smallpox.

It’s tough to argue with the vast historical literature documenting that smallpox was indeed a dreadful scourge. During the 18th century, the British Colonies in America were repeatedly struck with outbreaks that killed up to 30% of those infected. Within this context, the procedure known as inoculation became an increasingly accepted though extremely controversial practice. Indeed, today’s conflict between vaccine advocates and skeptics strongly resembles the 18th century controversy over smallpox inoculation.

This essay is NOT an attempt to settle the 18th century debate over smallpox inoculation, but to give a striking illustrative example of why inoculation as a practice became the object of such fervent emotion. In the 18th century, smallpox was a common cause of child mortality, and as anyone who has ever lost a child can tell you, the experience is probably the worst thing that can happen to man or woman who has become a parent. Watching a child die of a terrible disease would likely test the religious faith of a saint by raising the question: If God cares about me and my wife, why would he allow our beloved child to suffer a terrible death before our very eyes? The Assassination of P... Corsi Ph.D., Jerome R. Best Price: $15.44 Buy New $21.59 (as of 02:52 UTC - Details)

Among the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin probably had the most wide-ranging curiosity and interest in solving practical problems. For most of his adult life, he was haunted by the death of his second son, Francis Folger Franklin. As described in the 2011 New York Times essay, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Vaccines, by Howard Markel, MD.

Franky, as his parents called him, was born in 1732 a golden child, his smiles brighter, his babblings more telling and his tricks more magical than all the other infants in the colonies combined. Benjamin advertised for a tutor when the boy was only 2.

When he died of smallpox at age 4, the Franklins were beyond condolence. His tombstone was inscribed, “The delight of all who knew him.”

Rumors abounded that Franky had died from an inoculation gone awry. The gossip led the grieving Franklin to declare that his son had never been inoculated because he was suffering from “flux,” or protracted diarrhea. Franklin insisted that Franky “receiv’d the distemper” smallpox “in the common way of infection…

Following this terrible experience, Franklin became of the most tireless advocates of smallpox inoculation in the colonies.

In their magisterial work of medical history, Dissolving Illusions: Disease, Vaccines, and the Forgotten Historyauthors Roman Bystrianyk (Author), Dr. Suzanne Humphries make a compelling case that smallpox inoculation advocates such as Franklin were mistaken in their belief that inoculation was truly safe and beneficial. I suspect it would be very difficult to settle this controversy once and for all, as both the natural infection and the inoculation procedure were ghastly with high rates of mortality.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to understand why Benjamin Franklin would place enormous interest and hope in smallpox inoculation. After all, smallpox was a scourge against which humanity perceived itself to be helpless. As imperfect as it was, inoculation seemed to offer at least some hope. And as we have all experienced when faced with a fearful prospect, doing something to try to improve our odds often strikes us as better than nothing. For many reasonable people, gambling on the inoculation therefore seemed like a risk worth taking. Social Security: Simpl... Margenau, Tom Buy New $13.99 (as of 05:17 UTC - Details)

The 18th century American literature on smallpox suggests that our modern Vaccine Cult—that is, the faith that vaccines are a panacea for viral illnesses and that everyone should take them for every viral illness and not even dare question their safety and efficacy—has its roots in the trauma of smallpox. Out of the inconsolable anguish of parents like Benjamin and Deborah Franklin grew a fervent desire for a practical invention that would deliver humanity from the nightmare of smallpox. And so inoculation—and later vaccination—came to be viewed as mankind’s salvation.

P.S.: After I wrote this essay, I wondered if it’s possible—though entirely a matter of speculation—that Franky Franklin did, in fact, die following inoculation, as was rumored at the time. The thought occurred to me after pondering the fact that the rumor must have thrust Franklin—owner and publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette—into a dreadful position. He apparently felt morally obligated to address the rumor in his newspaper. Could it be that the eminently practical Franklin was persuaded that, in spite of killing Franky, inoculation still provided better survival odds against smallpox for the population as a whole?

This originally appeared on Courageous Discourse.