Benjamin Franklin's Son Died of Smallpox. His Notes on Vaccines Matter Now More Than Ever

Benjamin Franklin's Son Died of Smallpox. His Notes on Vaccines Matter Now More Than Ever

The burgeoning anti-vaccination movement, which promotes discredited science linking vaccines to autism and other mental disorders, often drapes itself in the flag of liberty and "personal choice" to justify keeping children far away from badly needed inoculations. The consequence of this dubious exercise of parental rights has been unprecedented comebacks of diseases once thought controlled or outright eradicated, including whooping cough, mumps and measles.

But one of America's Founding Fathers was pro-inoculation — even though medical science at the time presented only the most dangerous options for 18th-century parents. In his autobiography, famous scientist and key Constitutional Convention member Benjamin Franklin wrote about how he too once opposed inoculations for his son on the grounds of safety, with tragic results.

The relevant excerpt from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, published approximately 222 years ago, mourns the unnecessary loss of his son:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if the child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

Franklin's message still rings true today: The perceived risks of inoculation are nothing compared to the very real threat of pestilence and suffering posed by the diseases it protects against.

But Franklin wasn't even writing about the modern, experimentally validated and thoroughly tested vaccines that are in common use today. Before the development of Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccine in 1796, he would have been forced to rely on a technique called variolation. This method of inoculation involved infecting the recipient with a live sample of the smallpox virus, usually in the form of fluid drained from an infectious smallpox pustule.

It wasn't pretty:

As Scientific American's Kevin Bonham notes, variolation essentially gambled on the odds that the resulting infection would be mild rather than life-threatening. Unlike today's vaccines, there was a serious risk that variolation would kill the patient it intended to help. Controlling the dose was difficult, since experimental validation of the germ theory of disease didn't come until the 19th century. According to the World Health Organization, whereas regular smallpox killed about one in six people, variolation killed between 1 in 48 and 1 in 60.

Franklin, faced with the terrifying choice between exposing his son to a medical treatment that could very likely kill him or gambling on the odds that his child would manage to avoid smallpox entirely, apparently deeply regretted choosing the latter option.

Today's anti-vaxx parents have no such excuses. Two hundreds and twenty-two years from now, maybe we'll be reading their regrets too.

h/t Amy Webb