Inventing Edward Jenner

Historicizing anti-vaccination

Authored by: Travis Chi Wing Lau

The Routledge Companion to Health Humanities

Print publication date:  February  2020
Online publication date:  February  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138579903
eBook ISBN: 9780429469060
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter historicizes contemporary anti-vaccination movements and ideologies by examining the British culture wars waged over Edward Jenner’s “discovery” of vaccination in the 1790s. Often cited by medical historians and practitioners as a case study in medical innovation, Jenner’s vaccination method and his campaign for nationwide also politicized preventative medicine by its unconventional substitution of cowpox, which raised concerns about the practice’s safety, efficacy, and validity. To combat these concerns, Jenner relied upon not only politicians and fellow practitioners for support, but also poets like Robert Bloomfield who extolled Jenner as a national hero who valiantly defended Britain against smallpox. Jenner’s detractors, like Benjamin Moseley and William Rowley, responded with their own anti-vaccination propaganda, which played upon anxieties about bodily permeability and interspecies mixture that violated the boundary between man and animal. Both pro- and anti-vaccination positions depended upon insecure visions of the British nation simultaneously threatened and managed by the state interventions into citizen’s bodies. This historical tension between how both sides imagined health insecurity and its management continues to animate current debates over vaccination, which cannot be reducible to purely its science.

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