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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXXIV. - Anti-Vaccination Agitation


IN resisting the law compelling the vaccination of children, Keighley and its neighbourhood took rank next to Leicester. I am not sure that at starting the Keighley agitation was of local spontaneous generation; for an enthusiastic tailor and clothier who had come from the south was, from the beginning, its most ardent promoter. Whatever the history of its origin, there could be no dispute about the fact that the opposition to compulsory vaccination took a strong hold upon a large number of the inhabitants of the Keighley district. Consequently opportunity was seized upon to elect members of the Board of Guardians who were avowed anti-vaccinators. When such guardians found themselves in a majority, compulsory vaccination ceased to be enforced. They would neither allow their own children to be vaccinated nor subject others to the obligations of a law which they denounced, and were doing their best to nullify. This line of conduct brought them into collision with the State authorities and courts of law, and then they preferred imprisonment as rebels in York Castle to submission to injunctions to carry out compulsory vaccination as their statutory duty. The rebel guardians had a popular send-off as martyrs in a noble cause when they left Keighley to be imprisoned in York Castle. When they came back they received a hearty "see the conquering hero come" welcome home again. Later on smallpox broke out in Keighley, and caused such a scare there that many former opponents of Jenner's protective remedy resorted to it in a panic. As soon as the panic subsided the agitation recovered much of its temporarily lost strength.

Putting aside the plea of conscientious objection, which too often in the present day is a cloak for some purpose that it is not convenient to avow, the most convinced upholders of vaccination, among whom I number myself, had to confess that the anti-vaccinators were not without some solid excuse for their agitation. They firmly believed that the taint of several bad diseases was introduced into the blood of healthy infants. In discussions with my medical friends, who were all fervid advocates of vaccination, I found that they could not deny that it was possible to transmit certain kinds of disease from one child or one person to another, unless care was taken that the lymph came from an untainted source. Medical practitioners had not all of them been careful not to use inoculating matter which did not come from healthy cows, the original source, or from patients that neither inherited nor acquired the seeds of a class of transmissible diseases. The agitation took a violent form in places like Leicester and Keighley, when a panic was created by a few isolated facts which appeared to be conclusively proved. It led at once to greater care in regard to the gathering of the inoculating matter from cows and healthy patients.

So far the agitators did the public a desirable service. But that partial success did not satisfy them. They wanted to get rid of compulsory vaccination altogether. Finally they got their plea of conscientious objection recognised, and on that plea exemption for themselves. In the long wrangle arguments were used on both sides which struck far down into the heart of fundamental principles. As for the arguments the agitators tried to derive from the Bible, they were too shadowy to impress even the ignorant. Their sounder contention was that parents were the natural guardians of their children, and that while they strove to do their best for their offspring, they should not be interfered with by the State. Red-hot Radicals in this agitation spoke loudly and angrily against grandmotherly legislation, and in support of the sacred rights of parents and, unless in cases of gross neglect or incompetence, the inviolability of the family institution, and they were applauded and hotly supported by multitudes of those who held the most conservative views in regard to all other questions of a public nature. Political and ecclesiastical separation hedges were thrown down or jumped over for the nonce.

The defenders of compulsory vaccination were of a similarly mixed description. The medical men did not much obtrude themselves on public notice during the heat of the controversy. They left the defence of the law to the authorities and to the more thoughtful majority of the nation; and those who spoke or wrote for that majority relied upon the proved benefits of Jenrier's prophylactic, and, perhaps with too little qualification, upon the maxim, Salus populi suprema lex. Scarred and pitted faces among the older people, and undisfigured faces of the younger generations that had been protected by vaccination, proved beyond dispute the great change for the better which had been brought about by the widespread voluntary adoption of vaccination of infants in the early part of last century, which the compulsory law intended to make universal.


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