“Before school, there had to be vaccination. That was the law. How it was dreaded! When the health authorities tried to explain to the poor and illiterate that vaccination was a giving of the harmless form of smallpox to work up immunity against the deadly form, the parents didn’t believe it. All they got out of the explanation was that germs would be put into a healthy child’s body. Some foreign-born parents refused to permit their children to be vaccinated. They were not allowed to enter school. Then the law got after them for keeping the children out of school. A free country? they asked. You should live so long. What’s free about it, they reasoned, when the law forces you to educate your children and then endangers their lives to get them into school? Weeping mothers brought bawling children to the health center for inoculation. They carried on as though bringing their innocents to the slaughter. The children screamed hysterically at the first sight of the needle and their mothers, waiting in the anteroom, threw their shawls over their heads and keened loudly as if wailing for the dead.”― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Parents have been wary of vaccinations since their inception in 1796, when Edward Jenner, a country doctor living in Berkeley (Gloucestershire), England administered pus from a cowpox lesion on a milkmaid’s hand to an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps.
Thanks to the treatment Phipps became immune to smallpox, a very deadly disease, especially for children. In the late 1700s and 1800s, the child mortality rate was up to 20% due to many deadly pathogens including measles, mumps, tetanus, rubella, diphtheria, smallpox, bacterial influenza, polio, and pertussis among others, which have been mostly eradicated due to the rise of vaccinations.
Betty Smith’s great American novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” (first published in 1943) is a classic piece of literature but shows that even in the early 1900s vaccination was a topic of fear and concern among parents. The novel tells of the American melting pot in Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century, when an influx of immigrants from Europe arrived, living in squalor conditions in tenement houses with new access to schools and education.
At this time in US history, there were many clashes between people groups of different ethnicities with different languages and different cultures. The story of Francie Nolan, daughter of a German-American mother and an Irish-American father, growing up in Brooklyn in the 1900s is a particularly fascinating one, especially with the present day cultural events.
I get the fear and consternation about vaccination, especially with such high mortality rates among children in those days. The logic went like this, “I have had several miscarriages, another child of mine has already died, and now, you want to take my one healthy child and give her germs that will help her?! No way! You are not doing that to my child!!”
What’s worse, in this chapter, the well-educated, white doctor from Boston required to work in the clinic as part of his training, is complaining about the thin and dirty immigrant child (Francie) he is vaccinating, and how it would be better if these immigrants were sterilized!
Racism and prejudice is a dark part of our history that we have been struggling with since the inception of America. The problem is the de-humanizing of someone who is different from us. A different color, a different class, a different language, a different ethnicity, a different worldview all divides us leading to de-humanization of the “other,” in the form of isolation, derision, and exclusion. It’s a sad commentary on our country and our culture even in the 21st century.