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Anti-vaccination in America

In 1926 seven-year-old Belema Siegfried was turned away from school. The reason? Her parents had refused to submit paperwork proving that she had been vaccinated. Several months after Belema was turned away from school, her father, a Brooklyn chiropractor named Louis Siegfried, was arrested. Siegfried's arrest may have been calculated; just six months before his arrest, he had launched a new journal, The Quest (Against Vaccination and Cruel Vivisection). Like many of his fellow chiropractors, Siegfried advocated a non-interventionist approach to health, seeing vaccination as an "inherent poison" which was introduced into a healthy body.

The Quest was divided into two main themes. The first half discussed vaccination; the second discussed vivisection. (Vivisection is the practice of operation on a living animal.) However, the placement of anti-vaccination articles in the journal—at the front of the journal—as well as the tone of Siegfried's language when discussing vaccination indicate that his first and paramount concern was probably the issue of compulsory vaccination.

Cover of "The Quest," which includes illustrations of a baby and a dog

Siegfried claimed that his journal would conduct a "clean fight" against vaccination. However, in his first issue, he lambasted advocates of vaccination, calling them "unfair, ungenerous, misleading and untruthful." Insisting that pro-vaccinators often demonstrated a "brazen flaunting of false claims" while promoting "tampered statistics," Siegfried provided his readers with a range of arguments, both religious and medical, against compulsory vaccination.

But the centerpiece of the first issue of The Quest was the story of "Little Belema Siegfried," who had been denied admission to school because her parents had refused to allow her to be vaccinated. The Quest was printed anonymously, making it appear that the story of "Little Belema" had no relationship to the editor of the journal. However, Siegfried used the news articles covering his arrest to promote not only his anti-vaccination views, but also his journal.

Photo of article titled "Writ in Child's Case Tests School Vaccination"

The Quest was just one of many journals founded to oppose vaccination. In some ways, the vocal and highly organized nature of anti-vaccination societies during the late 19th and early 20th centuries made it difficult for a small journal such as The Quest to succeed; facing a great deal of competition, many of these journals folded relatively quickly. The Quest, however, was published for six years—between 1926 and 1932. It folded only with the death of its founder in 1932.

Even as vaccination against smallpox became increasingly common in the 19th century, many people viewed this procedure with skepticism. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that, while the smallpox vaccine worked, scientists and physicians could not explain just why vaccination worked. The development of vaccines against a variety of other disease, including rabies during the mid-19th century, did little to assuage many people's concerns.

In 1879 Americans opposed to vaccination founded the Anti-Vaccination Society of America. Other smaller and more local anti-vaccination groups such as the New England Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League also emerged during this period.

If anti-vaccinators had any doubts about the justice of their cause, two high-profile events in the early 20th century reinforced their concerns. In 1901 contaminated diphtheria antitoxin led to the death of thirteen children in St. Louis. That same year, contaminated smallpox vaccine also caused the death of several children in Camden, New Jersey.

In response, Congress passed the Biologics Control Act in 1902, establishing standards for the development of vaccines and requiring pharmaceutical companies which produced vaccines to possess a license.

In 1905, reassured no doubt by the purity of vaccines that were now used, the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to require compulsory vaccination. Compulsory or mass vaccination can arrest an epidemic, protecting those who are too young to be vaccinated or those who have suppressed immune systems. In early 20th century America, where epidemics of potentially lethal diseases such as smallpox often ran rampant, compulsory vaccination made a great deal of sense as it protected large segments of the population.

Pin that says, "I am vaccinated with Mulford's vaccine, are you?"

But not everyone embraced the idea of compulsory vaccination. From the 19th and well into the 21st century, Americans have debated and rejected vaccination on religious grounds, others have rejected the idea on political grounds, and still others have argued that vaccination not only failed to protect people against any diseases, it actually causes disease.

Alexandra M. Lord, Ph.D., is chair of the History of Medicine and Science division.