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Harmon’s Histories: To vax or not to vax? It’s an age-old debate in Montana

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

“Now, parents, is the time for us to decide whether we will risk vaccination with all its attendant dangers … or rise up in arms, and, united, suppress this evil!”

To vax or not to vax?

The debate is not a new one. The above quote is from a letter to the editor submitted by a person using the nom de plume Fairness, published in a Missoula newspaper in the fall of 1908, during the worldwide smallpox outbreak.

It was followed a couple days later by another letter from “A Father and Mother” in Missoula, reading in part, “We are glad that one earnest voice has been raised against compulsory vaccination.”

“We have the most strenuous objections to vaccination from both a physical and religious standpoint.” The mom and dad concluded their note with, “We would like to meet ‘Fairness.’ ”

September 2, 1908

On the other hand, French school authorities in 1909 made clear, in their view, not only should one shot be required for school children, but a second dose should be administered to extend the protection.

They cited statistics showing the effects of the initial vaccination wore off in two to four years, and without a “booster” concluded that a young student would be “perfectly liable to fall prey to the epidemic.”

Dr. Pol Serriere, head of the French team investigating the vaccine’s effectiveness, recommended that all children over 10 years of age be inoculated again.

Fast forward two years, and we find the battle over vaccinations reignited.

Two bacteriologists, Dr. Deason and Dr. Biehn, testifying in an anti-compulsory-vaccination lawsuit against the St. Louis school board, asserted the inoculations were “a menace to mankind” since the vaccines “may hold bacilli of tetanus or lockjaw.”

Meantime, the Washington (D. C.) Times newspaper wrote, “Every now and then we hear loud protests from honest and intelligent men and women against vaccination.”

“People who are otherwise thoroughly rational boil over and sputter at the mere mention of the word. They decry the policy of injecting ‘poison’ into the human system, and deny stoutly that it accomplishes the purpose for which it is administered.”

“Fortunately, the anti-vaccination propaganda doesn’t get far, probably because most people are too intelligent to be misled by it. Why people still persist in joining anti-vaccination societies is one of the things beyond human comprehension.”

Sanders County Signal, Plains, September 18, 1909

The Yellowstone Valley Star in Savage, Montana, agreed. “Vaccination to prevent smallpox is so general in this country and has been so effective … that nearly everybody except the small number of people whose temperament predisposes them to ‘take the other side’ accepts it as a matter of course and recognizes in it one of the greatest blessings conferred by modern medical advancement.”

The trustees of School District No.2 in Lewistown were among those whose “temperament predisposed them to take the other side.”

The Fergus County Argus, on September 11, 1908, reported, “We, the trustees of School District No. 2, township No. 9, speaking in behalf of ourselves and parents of school children, wish to protest against the vaccination of school children in this district.”

The trustees declared “vaccination in no way prevents or mitigates smallpox. (We) believe it pollutes the blood with a virus that is highly dangerous to life.”

They claimed, “No man can prove that vaccination ever prevented or mitigated a case of smallpox” and doctors are “taking advantage of our children by polluting their life blood with the filthiest of puss poison for the sake of a few.”

It was the doctors themselves who were spreading the disease, they asserted, by “passing from house to house, coming in contact with pedestrians on the streets, visiting patients without changing wearing apparel, washing hands, face etc.”

Fergus County Argus, Lewistown, MT, September 11, 1908

They concluded, “We do not believe vaccination protects, directly or indirectly, from smallpox, and we also believe it is the worst crime ever perpetrated against the American public.”

Three school trustees, the school clerk, and 16 parents signed the document.

Still, the work by the Montana Board of Health to overcome such beliefs proved very effective. Its pamphlet on vaccinations was distributed to teachers, county commissioners and doctor offices statewide.

“One physician (reported) that ten cases of vaccination have resulted from the reading of the circular by patients of his who looked it over while it was lying on the desk in his waiting room.”

The conclusion reached by the Washington Times mirrors today’s reality: “In fact, the anti-vaccination people stir up quite a little fuss. They even succeed in causing a few other people, who really don’t believe them, to harbor some doubt as to whether the unanimity of scientific opinion on the question of vaccination is justifiable.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.