Considering John Adams & Company, It’s a Good Time to Get Vaccinated

“John Adams Inaugurated” (1797) Public Domain

Thankfully, medical science has come a long way since the 18th century. Here’s a brief reflection on why today is a good day to get vaccinated.

This afternoon, I’m going to get my first of two vaccine doses. I’m especially grateful for how far medical science has come since the 18th century. When inoculating for smallpox back then, a doctor would use an instrument to scratch one’s upper arm, take some remnants of a smallpox pustule (gross!), and dab it in. Each fall with my junior English students, we watch the related scene from HBO’s production of John Adams:   

This was “cutting edge” science for the time! (Pun intended.) Fortunately, my juniors don’t typically have my class before lunch. (As a side note, I often wonder about tetanus and other infections as I watch the scene.)

The later use of the cowpox virus proved much more safe and effective as a vaccination (rather than an inoculation) against smallpox.

Socially, controversial concerns about vaccines have not changed much since the 18th century. There was an interesting mix of suspicion and support for the smallpox inoculations–sounds familiar. Ben Franklin and some Christians (including Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards) defended the practice. For the classroom, I’ve used an interesting resource for sampling the viewpoints of the time with students via primary sources from The National Humanities Center on “The pamphlet war over smallpox vaccination, 1721 – National.” 

Ironically, the death of 18th century theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards in 1758 came some 37 days after getting inoculated for smallpox. He was a thoughtful advocate for smallpox inoculations. Edwards was President of Princeton University at the time. Contrary to the lopsided emphasis in many high school textbooks on his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards intellectually engaged in many areas of scholarship, including the natural sciences and the philosophy of John Locke. Philosophically and contextually, high school textbooks should also include excerpts from works such as “Heaven Is a World of Love,” “Charity Contrary to a Selfish Spirit,” The End for Which God Created the World, Nature of True Virtue, and Freedom of the Will.

Edwards had a comprehensive vision for how faith, philosophy, and science could be studied, integrated, and applied to all of life. He believed deeply in the sovereignty and providence of God, and I’m sure that he would have said that such understanding does not guarantee that one always gets to have a perfect vaccination experience.  

However one looks at providence, medical science, public attitudes, and the related details about vaccinations, we have much to be thankful for concerning the improvements in medical science since the 18th century. If we could just vaccinate ourselves against disinformation and misinformation, we could become much more healthy all around. 

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Public Domain

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