This past week a Pickering woman used social media to put a face to a potential “victim of anti-vaccinationists” after her infant was exposed to measles in a doctor’s waiting room. With this gesture she turned the tables on “Anti-vaxers” who exploit isolated stories of personal tragedy to magnify the risks of vaccination.
Opposition to vaccination is fueled by the suspicion of undue influence by pharmaceutical companies and medical under-reporting of adverse effects. A century ago other anxieties affected how the practice was viewed.
As a smallpox epidemic loomed in 1900, the enforcement of compulsory vaccination through the schools became a flashpoint in Toronto. Nineteen years later, the same circumstances and issue again divided citizens. On both occasions anti-vaccinationist successfully provoked a backlash by exploiting deep-seated fears of human contamination by animals.
On February 8, 1900 the Globe reported that a Junction resident had likely spread smallpox during a trip to Owen Sound and through contact with local businesses. Standard measures were followed to contain the spread of disease from this transportation and manufacturing hub north-west of Toronto.
Vaccination, the term for smallpox immunization is derived from the Latin word for cow, “vacca”. It involves introducing in humans the antibodies generated by cows as protection against a mild infection of the udder called cowpox. The power of vaccination to control epidemics made it emblematic of scientific medical practice and it became widely embraced in Europe and the Americas throughout the 19th century.
The Ontario 1887 Vaccination Act, passed in response to the 1885 smallpox epidemic in Montreal, ruled that that all children must be vaccinated against smallpox within three months of birth and re-vaccinated every seven years to maintain their immunity. Every municipality had the power to order compulsory vaccination during an epidemic and school boards could pass a by-law requiring all pupils to provide a vaccination certificate. In 1894 the Toronto Board of Education instituted compulsory vaccination.
“a dirty, filthy practice”
No sooner had the local health units in the Junction and Toronto acted on their mandate to vaccinate than the anti-vaccinationists went into high gear. The newly incorporated Anti-Vaccination League began its recruitment of supporters through the pages of local dailies.
The anti-vaccinationists, including Toronto Mayor MacDonald who called vaccination “a dirty, filthy practice”, must have relished the stress placed on Medical Officer of Health the following week when an inadequate number of vaccination stations caused over a thousand children barred from school to descend on City Hall for the required injection. The M.O.H., Dr. Sheard, was forced to allow children to be re-admitted to schools until the necessary stations were set up.
The goal of the Anti-Vaccinationists League was to repeal compulsory vaccination legislation. Members targeted City Council and the Board of Education, agitating at meetings and presenting petitions showing support for their cause among Toronto voters.
The League’s message was well formulated by 1903. In speeches at an April rally, members insisted that vaccination was “not based on science but pure speculation”. They advocated isolation and improved sanitation as the best means of preventing the spread of disease. The smallpox vaccine and immunization were denounced, the former as “rottenness” and the latter as more dangerous to health than the disease itself. (Globe, April 10, 1903)
By associating the vaccine serum with organic waste, anti-vaccinationists were mining attitudes formed by government sponsored education campaigns highlighting the dangers of pathogens in water and food.
Public health information alerted the public to the need for sanitation and regulation of the meat and milk supply. The same information fueled resistance to being injected with microscopic organisms produced in a liquid secreted by cows.
In the meantime, competitive commercial dairies and producers of fake medicine took advantage of the heightened public vigilance towards organic environmental health risks.
To boost confidence in vaccination, the Globe ran a feature on the Ontario Vaccine Farm, sole supplier of the province’s vaccines. Concluding with Dr. Sheard’s strong testimonial, it highlighted the immaculately clean premises, sound health of the cows and the upstanding character of Farm director Dr. Stewart. In an effort to dispel the fear surrounding the use of animal matter in the production of medicine, the article offered a step by step account of how smallpox serum was made. Click to enlarge. Globe, April 6, 1901 p5
Anti-vaccinationists chose to instead highlight the more equivocal report of Dr. J.J. Cassidy at the Ontario Boards of Health meeting later that year. While noting the “extreme care that is practised on bovine vaccine farms” it sounded an alarm over the rates of infection and spoiled serum caused by ineffective transportation and administration of the vaccine from farm to arm. (Globe Sept. 10, 1902 p4).
A great advantage to the anti-vaccinationists’ cause was that the patient’s arm was scratched to administer the vaccine; if not properly cleaned and protected the area became infected. Anti-vaccinationists solicited bad news stories of these infections as proof that compulsory vaccination was a violation not only of personal liberty but health.
“Victims of Vaccination”
A lecture at a Massey Hall on March 13, 1906 featured the sensationalistic images of a New York Homeopathic doctor. The stereopticon slides were drawn from images circulated in such American publications as Vaccination A Curse and A Menace to Personal Liberty (1900).
The presentation was part of a League campaign sparked by Dr. Sheard’s call for compulsory vaccination at the outset of a smallpox epidemic the winter of 1905-1906. Armed with a petition with thousands of names collected through a door to door campaign and solicited by a Trustee through local papers, the anti-vaccinationists took on the Board of Education. A member of the Board during one of its meetings stated that vaccination “introduced filthy animal matter into the system”.
The pressure paid off; the following year, anti-vaccinationists rejoiced when on the 21st of February the Toronto Board of Education voted to rescind compulsory vaccination. It would lead to enormous numbers of un-vaccinated students overwhelming the system when next there was need for rapid and massive vaccination.
Anti-vaccinationists Rise Again
In 1914 a Vaccination Act was passed by the province. The M.O.H.’s new power to require vaccination of all students during a smallpox outbreak was exercised by Dr. Hastings in November 1919. History repeated itself as the Ontario Board of Health came up against elected city officials pressured by agitating anti-vaccinationists.
In the first week of the outbreak Hastings announced that he had immunized himself and his staff and opened vaccination stations throughout the city. All students had to show proof of vaccination within the next weeks or be suspended . Time was critical, although it was a mild form of smallpox that was presenting, if unchecked it would evolve into a deadlier version as it spread through the schools.
One would have assumed that there would be little push-back. It was understood that soldiers had been effectively protected by vaccination from high-mortality diseases at the front. Shortly after the war, when the influenza swept through Toronto, the public had begged for a vaccination.
Toronto newspapers that November reported on the growing number of cases, they printed the encouragement by leaders in medicine for all persons to vaccinate, they featured the boast of University of Toronto that it had vaccinated the entire student body within days, they pointed to the inadequacy of the Swiss Cottage Isolation Hospital, and they passed on vaccination information offered at Child Welfare Society meeting.
Smallpox isolation hospital Star Nov. 5, 1919 p11
In the midst of the crisis, clutching the memory of their victory in having compulsory vaccination rescinded, the anti-vaccinationists poured into the streets armed with petitions and placards. They rented Massey Hall and again used the theme of “child victims of vaccination” to stir up crowds.
“We should have fought them with vaccine points.”
Left: Ad, Star November 12, 1919 Right: Anti-vaccination rally at City Hall
For this campaign the League targeted war veterans. Drawing a parallel between Toronto and the German system of compulsory vaccination in contrast to that of the British which permitted persons to opt- out, veterans were exhorted to “fight for medical freedom”. However, just as in the past, it was the spectre of animal matter being injected into the body that packed the greatest propaganda punch.
Led by Homeopath Dr. Henry Becker, a deputation of anti–vaccinationists attended the November 6 Board of Control meeting that was to consider the request for compulsory vaccination. Dr. Hastings walked out in disgust as the familiar arguments were aired.
Ignoring the fact that the province’s supply of vaccine was produced exclusively at Connaught Laboratories which had an excellent safety record, Dr. Becker used the imagery that had served the League so well nineteen years earlier.
… “We do not know today what the basis of the vaccination virus is. It has been made from the grease taken from the heels of horses, from swine pox, and even from corpses.”
“From. what?” exclaimed Cont. McBride.
“From dead human bodies.”
Dr. Saylor, a chiropractor, claimed that in 1870 there were 125,000 smallpox deaths in Germany despite the fact the ninety percent of the population had been vaccinated. To which Controller McBride replied,
“It is a pity they weren’t all vaccinated. We should have fought them with vaccine points instead of bayonets.” (Laughter and applause from the deputation.) “They say that the serum is made from horse’s blood. What we need is a little more horse-sense and a little less horse-blood.”
Countering the image of diseased animals being used for vaccination, the Toronto Health Department’s November bulletin gave a full description of how the vaccine was produced.
Stepping in to defend vaccination the Toronto Daily Star also ran a feature on the issue. A neat parallel to the Globe’s report on the Ontario Vaccine Farm eighteen years earlier, it too focused on the hygienic conditions and practices at the farm branch of Connaught Laboratories which had replaced the Ontario Vaccine Farm as vaccine supplier to the province.
Votes and Vaccination
With an election scheduled after the peak epidemic season of the winter, Council members were anxious to gauge the mood of voters. The mild nature of reported cases emboldened public protest against compulsory vaccination. There hadn’t been a smallpox epidemic in over a decade and a half: surely this was proof that it wasn’t necessary?
Irritation with Health officials was sparked by the inadequate number of vaccination stations to serve the enormous number of unvaccinated students. Hordes of children were sent to City Hall, where they chatted, shoved and played for hours while waiting their turn. The crowd of kiddies to some was symbol of a caring society, to others it represented a disruptive and intrusive government.
Anxious to be in sync with the prevailing winds, Mayor Church and Controller McBride took part in a November 19 rally at Massey Hall where the latter protested against “the slaughter of innocent children”. Church hedged his bet by stating that he was for vaccination but against its compulsory application.
In the north western reaches of the city the British Imperial Association, in its characteristic chip-on-the-shoulder anti-municipal bureaucracy position, rallied Earlscourt and Wychwood-Bracondale residents against compulsory vaccination.
Contrasting Attitudes between north-west Suburbs and the Ward
With a smallpox map, The Toronto Health Department drew attention to the relationship between attitudes to vaccination and the geographical spread of the disease. The worst hit part of the city was a swath from the foot of Bathurst street to the north-west suburbs.
This area, where resisters to vaccination were concentrated, was negatively compared to the Ward where families reputedly attended the annual City Hall vaccination clinic in a submissive, respectful manner.
In a Council vote on December 10, eleven favoured and thirteen opposed compulsory vaccination. Although the regulation was rescinded in Toronto, the worst of the epidemic had been checked with most school aged children having been vaccinated the previous month in accordance with the provincial Vaccination Act. Between October 1919 and March 1920, 2,864 smallpox cases were reported, over 200,000 persons were vaccinated and eleven patients died.
In 2015 parents of Toronto public school students have the right to exempt their children from compulsory vaccination according to their conscience. Already a century ago, the issue of who decides what is best for children and the fear of physical violation and disease shaped the vaccination debate. It continues to bring into relief the challenge of balancing personal liberty with social responsibility, experiential understanding with scientific knowledge, and individual self-sufficiency with state protection of collective well-being.
The midtown St.Clair West neighborhood was home to many who opposed compulsory vaccination a century ago. I explored local opinion on the issue at The Stop’s Wychwood Barns Farmers’ Market on Saturday February 21st.
(many qualified the “Yes” with comment that benefit far outweighs risk)
Our infant daughter will be able to effectively fight childhood illnesses with her own immune system. She’s breast fed.
Do some research! There’s lots available, not just mainstream media endorsed by Big Pharma.
I think it’s a concerted effort to reduce the world population through additives in the vaccines.
I was bullied on Facebook. My “friends” in L.A. & Toronto would not listen or respect my point of view and because I would not agree after a lot of harassment and repeated pro-vaccine argument the conversation became one of personal attacks irrelevant to the topic of vaccination. I felt outcast and falsely labelled “Anti-Vaxer”
There’s mercury and aluminum in vaccination, toxic heavy metals. The profit motive by pharmaceutical companies contribute to the problem.
I avoid medical interventions in general. My 84 year old father was vaccinated and got very sick!
By vaccinating I not only protect my children but also old people and babies.
The rewards of vaccination far outweigh the risks. X3
Read Susan Humphries M.D.!
Previous posts on public health and Toronto media century ago:
Vaccines and Immunization: Epidemics, Prevention and Canadian Innovation, online exhibit, Museum of Health Care at Kingston