The Anti-vaccination Movement: History, satire, and body politics

Vaccination. The word, coined by Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823) as a combination of the Latin word for cow, “vacca,” and the Latin word for cowpox, “vaccinia,” has carried emotional weight from its inception as a scientific endeavor to control smallpox, an infectious disease.

Today, the word “vaccine” likely provokes immediate, charged associations with other words (autism, influenza, anti-vaxxer) and high-profile public personas (Jenny McCarthy, Donald Trump, Kat Von D). These ideas are all associated with a dispute over vaccination safety that does not align with a singular social class or political party. Heightened anxiety over vaccinations has, in recent years, been reignited first through an easily debunked study linking vaccines to autism in mice[1] then fueled by a myriad of celebrity hot-takes and a seemingly endless supply of incendiary internet memes from both sides of the debate.

The roots of this dispute extend back to Edward Jenner’s first successful smallpox vaccination in 1796 and subsequent efforts to spread the practice of vaccination to Europe and the world. Tension over vaccines ultimately centers on the rights of an individual to refuse inoculation despite the risks to the self the wider community, and the authority of the state to intervene with that choice.

Though he was not the first person to discover vaccines, Edward Jenner is credited as a pioneer who scientifically pursued the practice of vaccination, published his inquiries, and actively spread his knowledge. In large part thanks to Jenner’s initial efforts, the World Health Organization announced the complete eradication of smallpox on May 8, 1980.[2] However, the early days of vaccination were rife with public suspicion and legitimate fear of permanent scarring, fevers, and imposters operating alongside legitimate, state-appointed vaccinators.

As is the case today, anti-vaccination politics in the 19th century also crossed class divides and political ideologies to coalesce into a debate about the policing of bodies through the English Vaccination Act of 1853, which made vaccination compulsory for healthy children by 3 months of age.[3] The aggressive enforcement of this act by the state was disproportionately directed toward the working classes. The act was ultimately superseded by the Vaccination Act of 1907, which made it much easier for parents to attain conscientious objector status.

These reproductions of satirist cartoons from the Becker Library’s archival collection of smallpox caricatures represent public concern over the effects of smallpox vaccination in early 19th-century Europe and serve as a historical counterpart to today’s equally inflammatory and hyperbolic anti-vaccination memes. For example, James Gillray’s cartoon, “The Cowpock: Or, the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation” depicts just-vaccinated men and women sprouting cow features while an unconcerned Edward Jenner gashes the arm of a frightened woman. Despite the more than 200-year history of vaccines, our modern understanding of immunology, and the demonstrated efficacy and safety of vaccinations, there remains a clear tension between the dense intricacy of scientific discourse and easily digestible anti-vaccination propaganda, compounded by reasonable fears of overreach by the state.

These four prints are part of a collection of nine prints housed in the Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives. If you are interested in learning more about these prints please visit:

[1] A 1997 study published in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield, a British surgeon. The paper has been discredited due to procedural errors, ethical violations, and financial conflicts of interest. The paper was retracted and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine.