Ben Franklin’s Vaccine Lessons – The New York Times
About 60 million American adults – or about one in every four – are unvaccinated against COVID-19. He has made an irrational choice that exposes him to serious illness. But they have also made a choice with a long historical tradition.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Biden declared, “We will never give up on vaccinating more Americans.” And Biden is right that a sustained vaccination campaign can do very well, given that a large proportion of Covid deaths and hospitalizations still occur among unvaccinated and unvaccinated people. The question, of course, is which argument can win over any vaccine skeptic at this point.
Today, I want to use history—with some help from filmmaker Ken Burns—to answer that question.
a West African pioneer
The Native American advocate for vaccination against serious illness was arguably a slave man named Onesimus. Before being forcibly brought to Boston, Onesimus appears to have lived in West Africa, where vaccination was a common practice. There, he was intentionally infected with a small amount of smallpox to make him immune to the more severe version.
In Boston, Onesimus told his owner, Cotton Mather, about the practice. Mather was among the most prominent religious leaders of the colonies in the 1720s. He also had a keen interest in science, as Burns told me when we spoke recently. Today, science and religion are often considered opposites, Burns said, but previous religious leaders were scientific pioneers.
When smallpox began to spread in Boston in the 1720s, Mather campaigned for residents to be vaccinated—and she was sharply criticized and even attempted to bomb her home. Some Bostonians argued that vaccination violated God’s will. Others, including doctors, argued that it was folklore that would do more harm than good.
These arguments were powerful because vaccination was so counterproductive. Mather was claiming that people could avoid getting sick by getting sick.
Modern vaccination is somewhat less counterproductive, as drugs can now teach the immune system to respond to a deadly virus, without using small amounts of an actual virus. But vaccination is still a strange notion. It involves the injection of a mysterious cocktail of foreign substances into the human body.
This is why there has been skepticism about almost every new vaccine – even the life-changing polio vaccine. Skepticism has grown in recent decades, as Americans rely less on institutions and experts, as Elena Konis, a medical historian, wrote.
Historically, the two most effective responses to vaccine skepticism have been government mandates and relentless, quiet persuasion. But broader COVID-vaccine mandates are probably unrealistic in the US today, thanks to a combination of a Supreme Court ruling and widespread public protest. Most of the work of persuasion will have to be done.
Persuasion requires taking skeptics’ concerns seriously and creating opportunities for doctors, nurses, relatives, friends and other trusted people to explain why vaccination can be counter-intuitive and yet life-saving. “As a doctor, I was always trained to never give up on people – you show up,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told me yesterday. “You build trust by listening to people, helping them feel they are respected and valued.”
In Mather’s time, one such campaigner for vaccination was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin himself was persuaded, along with several other founders, including George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Yet he still had a tragic relationship with the smallpox vaccination.
As the disease was spreading in Philadelphia in 1736, he and his wife Deborah initially decided not to vaccinate their 4-year-old son, Francis, known as Frankie. The boy was sick with a cold and Franklins worried that his body would not be able to handle the side effects of the vaccination. Soon, however, Frankie contracted smallpox and died.
“This is the biggest tragedy of Franklin’s life,” Burns told me. “Deborah and Benjamin Franklin were simply besieged by this mistake, although it was completely understandable.” (Burns has posted a six-minute “extra” film clip about Frankie and the vaccination, and it’s powerful. Next month, PBS will air Burns’ new documentary, “Benjamin Franklin.”)
When rumors spread in Philadelphia that Frankie had died from vaccination rather than disease, Franklin took the painful step of writing the true story in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. In later years, he tried to persuade others to avoid his family’s fate.
“Certainly parents will no longer refuse to accept a discovery and thankfully God has graciously blessed mankind in his mercy,” Franklin wrote in a pro-inoculation pamphlet. “For the loss of one in 10 is not only the loss of so many individuals, but the accumulated loss of all children and children of children who may have been deceased, which may have multiplied by successive generations. “
Today in the US, the death toll from COVID has exceeded 950,000, and many of those deaths occurred after vaccines became available. It’s a sad pattern that is consistent with history: vaccination is both counterproductive and highly effective.
In Shakespeare’s adaptation of Erin Arbus’ “The Merchant of Venice”, an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish moneylender, Shylock’s character is still black. Times critic Maya Phillips writes that Arbus has turned Shylock into “the tragic heart of the play”, and not as its antagonist. But because the production remains faithful to the text, its racist commentary comes through only through pauses and glimpses that give the story “directions it can’t really go in,” writes Phillips.
“Black No More” deviates from its original text, a 1931 satirical novel by George S. Schuyler about a man who goes through a process that turns black people into white. There are few sympathetic characters of any caste in the book; People act in their own interest. But the music, directed by Scott Elliott, softens the book’s biting criticism, giving the characters redemptive arcs.
“Although each production brings art from the past to the present, sometimes in spectacular ways, it is not always easy to reinterpret archaic plots, themes, and characters,” writes Phillips. “The past pushes back.”
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