Choice to vaccinate a heroic
I am not a historian, but I like to read history.
Like many people today, I thought about vaccinations, so I decided to read a little history about them, to understand why we are where we are – with only a little over 50 for. percent of the population in the United States fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, far behind countries like Canada and the United Kingdom
Likewise, over a year ago, I found it useful to read the history of pandemics. John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” a story about the 1918 flu epidemic, provided useful insight into pandemics and how people responded to them. (Hint: some things never change.)
A few days ago I learned that when George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775 he discovered that the war was being fought on two fronts: one for independence from the British, and the other for survival against smallpox, a contagious disease, a disfiguring and often fatal disease. Curious, I decided to read further.
The first written description of a disease like smallpox appeared in China in the 4th century AD. But it wasn’t until the 1700s that serious attempts were made to vaccinate people against the disease. An English physician, Edward Jenner, sometimes referred to as “the father of immunology”, found that infecting people with the “smallpox” virus somehow confers immunity to the smallpox virus. Not everyone rushed to receive these early – and sometimes fatal – inoculations.
Washington’s decision to vaccinate its troops – long before Jenner’s work was widely known – was a bold move and a sort of gamble. But the bet is won: the scourge of smallpox has resisted long enough for Washington to defeat the British. (It should be noted that not all of Washington’s military decisions have paid off as much as this one.)
Vaccine development has proceeded slowly, albeit at a remarkable speed in recent years. As recently as 1967, two million people around the world still died each year from smallpox, but by 1979 the disease was largely eradicated, almost entirely through a determined and costly effort to immunize the world’s population.
More than 20 years before Washington’s decision to Valley Forge, a clergyman named Jonathan Edwards (if you’ve heard of the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” then you think of the person I in mind) became president of the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University.
Edwards was one of the most important theologians of his day and, not coincidentally, theologically conservative (consider that famous sermon title). But his interests went far beyond theology. He was deeply curious, for example, of the work of the English scientist Isaac Newton and embraced much of what was considered at the time to be a “new science”. The extent of his intellectual curiosity might shame some pastors today, although there doesn’t seem to be much shame today among pastors about the lack of intellectual curiosity.
When a wave of smallpox swept through Princeton, New Jersey, in the winter of 1757-58, Edwards requested a vaccination and made up his mind to be vaccinated publicly. The vaccination, administered by a reputable local doctor, seemed to be going well, but something went horribly wrong. 37 days after being vaccinated, he died at the age of 54.
Edwards was never in better health, and other illnesses may have contributed to his death. Edwards’ wife, who arrived in Princeton a month after Edwards died, contracted dysentery and died soon after. Edwards and his wife, Sarah Pierpont, are buried in Princeton Cemetery, a few blocks north of campus.
The story of Edwards’ unsuccessful vaccination has always been presented to me as an example of heroism and strong leadership. Edwards wanted to be an example to his community by getting vaccinated. Today, I guess, some would consider Edwards a jerk for getting a vaccine that hadn’t worked better in clinical trials. Like some of those who resist receiving the coronavirus vaccine today, he should have waited longer and demanded better data.
Or maybe not. I still think Edwards should be admired for his decision, just as those who have chosen to be vaccinated against the coronavirus should be respected for their decisions. Great progress has obviously been made in immunology, but vaccinations were not then, and are not today, without risk. The risk of receiving the coronavirus vaccine, however, is extremely low. It has saved lives and could, if more of us received it, save even more.
Sometimes the decision to get the vaccine is heroic. It could even be seen as a civic duty, a patriotic act, a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the greater good.
– Douglas Brouwer is a resident of the Township of Park. His email address is [email protected]