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Vaccination from the Calf, Charles Joseph Staniland. London, 1883, courtesy of Picryl
April 18, 2021

President Jefferson and the First Vaccine

Of Thomas Jefferson’s numerous achievements as a statesman, a Founding Father, and a progenitor of many Americans, his early experiences with anti-vaxxers probably doesn’t come to mind for most people. As the nation watches another administration deal with the Coronavirus outbreak, we explore how Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, dealt with the plague of his time: smallpox. In order to better understand President Jefferson’s response to the smallpox epidemic, let’s have a brief introduction to the smallpox vaccine and its evolution.

Inoculation is a procedure in which a small amount of the infection is placed in a person’s bloodstream in order to trigger a mild case, from which the patient recovers and has antibodies. According to Voltaire, inoculation against smallpox originated with the Circassians and came to the West via the Turks. Voltaire, who was writing about his time in England between 1726 and 1729, not only provides his reader with a brief historical observation about  smallpox inoculation, but he also gives some context to the inoculation debates raging in his own lifetime, when he wrote that  “It is whispered in Christian Europe that the English are mad and maniacs: mad because they give their children smallpox to prevent their getting it, and maniacs because they cheerfully communicate to their children a certain and terrible illness with the object of preventing an uncertain one.” [1] Here, the fault lines between inoculation and anti-inoculation are geographical. 

Jefferson, an admirer of Voltaire, and a man of science himself, had opted for inoculation against smallpox in 1766, when he was in his twenties. [2] Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1768 and again in 1769, in Norfolk, Virginia, anti-inoculation riots erupted. After inoculation, people had to be quarantined, and the people who lived near the physician’s house were uncomfortable with the procedure being performed so close to them. A small outbreak of smallpox had been attributed to a physician releasing patients from quarantine too early, which fueled anti-inoculation sentiments. These riots culminated in the burning down of one of the physician’s houses. None other than Thomas Jefferson was retained to bring suit on behalf of Archibald Campbell, the physician whose house was burnt down. Unfortunately for Campbell, the judge was anti-inoculation, and the physician was eventually indicted for nuisance. But by 1777, a bill was passed by a committee of which Jefferson was a member, which allowed for inoculation to happen anywhere in the Colony of Virginia, provided it was approved by the majority of the neighbors. Five years later, under the protection of that law, Jefferson inoculated his children. 

Approximately twenty years after the anti-inoculation riots had broken out in Virginia, an English physician named Edward Jenner demonstrated that contracting cowpox (a far less serious disease than smallpox) made people immune to smallpox, and inoculated patients with cowpox in 1789. In doing so, Jenner created the first vaccine: the word ‘vacca’ is Latin for cow. Jenner’s findings were published in 1796. Jefferson naturally kept abreast of Jenner’s progress, and even corresponded with him later. [3] 

In 1800, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse began the first vaccinations in America. Waterhouse, a cofounder of Harvard medical school, had studied medicine in Scotland and later in the Netherlands, where he had shared a room with John Adams. After conducting successful vaccinations on his children and 19 boys in a controlled experiment in Boston, Waterhouse reached out to his former roommate, then President, to expand the vaccination program. Adams was unresponsive, but his Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, was electrified by the idea. [4] 

The following year, in 1801, Jefferson ascended the presidency, and Waterhouse found in Jefferson a much more cooperative president, who was willing to endorse Waterhouse’s efforts. Jefferson also assisted Waterhouse by providing numerous physicians with the new vaccination from England. [5] Jefferson’s contributions went beyond any executive administrative undertaking. He helped troubleshoot the efficacy of the vaccination by suggesting keeping it cool during transport, thus helping to expand the reach of the vaccination. [6] Moreover, Jefferson personally directed the vaccination of over 200 people at Monticello and surrounding environs, and then began collecting his own vaccine from those who had been inoculated. Rather than awaiting more shipments of the vaccine from England, Jefferson was able to send vaccine to other areas of Virginia, as well as Washington, D.C. [7]

Jefferson’s vaccination notes were published, and he received recognition from the Royal  Jennerian Society (eponymously named for Edward Jenner) for his efforts to promote vaccination in America. It would be hard to find a world leader who was more committed to public health as both an administrator and a clinician than Thomas Jefferson.

 1. Voltaire’s Letters on the English, Letter XI

2. Dewey, Frank L. “Thomas Jefferson’s Law Practice: The Norfolk Anti-Inoculation Riots.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 91, no. 1, 1983, pp. 39–53. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4248609. Accessed 11 Apr. 2021. Page 39

3. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-3718

4. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-32-02-0249

5. Blake, John B. “Benjamin Waterhouse and the Introduction of Vaccination.” Reviews of Infectious Diseases, vol. 9, no. 5, 1987, pp. 1044–1052. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4454213. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.

6. Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives). Illustrated, Harper Perennial, 2009. P. 44

7. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/inoculation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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