Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Of Cows, Vaccines and Small Pox

Today we hear a lot of controversial statements about vaccines. Some people are dead set against them and think they are causing developmental delays in children. Others are gung-ho in favor of them, so much so that they want to sweep the inherent risks under the rug. And me? I want to know about the etymology.

From the Wikipedia: An 1802 caricature by James Gillray depicting the early controversy surrounding Jenner's vaccination theory
I am a linguist, not a doctor. And I know from long experience that any latinate word starting with vacc- has got something to do with cows. I am so intrigued by this fact that I made it a major plot point in my critically acclaimed novel Vacuum County. (Critically acclaimed in this context means that none of the reviewers hated it.)

Order here

In Theodosia and the Pirates, I touched briefly on an important turning point in the history of inoculation. What was that turning point? The place in life where it was an option, but it was not yet required. It could save lives, and people knew that, but it was also risky. This was just before vaccination came out in all its glory.

In 1798, Edward Jenner developed the first successful vaccine -- it was an inoculation against small pox. Jenner had noticed that milkmaids who had caught cow pox from their proximity to their cows did not come down with small pox. Variolae Vaccinae   means small pox of the cow, and that is what the word vaccine derives from. The term vaccination to mean cow pox inoculation was coined in 1800 by Richard Dunning, a friend of Jenner's. 

However, before vaccination came into vogue, inoculation against small pox was already practiced. While many lives were undoubtedly saved due to inoculation, there was also a sizable percentage of people inoculated who died of it. Among them was the great theologian Jonathan Edwards, the great grandfather of our heroine, Theodosia Burr Alston. He died of an inoculation he received in 1758.  

How did this death affect the history of the United States? It left Aaron Burr four times an orphan. First he lost his parents to small pox. Then he lost his grandparents to a small pox inoculation. And finally, he lost his faith. For he concluded that you were damned if you do and damned if you don't.

There is an inherent risk in everything we do. It is risky not to vaccinate, because people do succumb to disease. But it is also risky to put all your trust in the medical establishment of the day, because they can't guarantee us a happy outcome. While vaccines may be safer today than they were in the past, there is always some risk. The idea of eliminating all risk is impossible.Sometimes people die because they were not vaccinated. Sometimes they die because they were.  That is why people need to weigh the options for themselves and decide which risk they are most willing to live with. The right answer for one person may not be the right answer for another.

 Even a theologian like Jonathan Edwards can be brought low by inoculation, and the implications of such a death affect entire families, and the legacy they leave to their nation. Fire and brimstone is what he preached. But sometimes you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.


  1. Vaccines can be helpful, but I am mixed about these being mandatory. With the flu shot people are almost goaded for not getting one, and I have yet to see any evidence that people who do get the flu shot get sick less often then people like me who do not. I respect the medical establishment, but I do not respect how much of medicine today is often about pushing pills and such.

    1. Yes, I agree with you, Julia. It is good to have the option of using the latest medicine, because sometimes it can really be helpful and work miracles. But it should not be mandatory, because everything carries its own risk, and so people have to decide for themselves which risks they will take.

  2. I think that it should be left up to the individual to decide whether to get vaccinated or not. The problem with that approach though is that during the natural course of others trying to decide whether to get vaccinated, they could become infected by those that chose not to. I choose not to get the flu vaccine every year - it just seems that I get sick every time I get it, so I certainly wouldn't want anyone forcing me to get it.
    But back to your point, there is risk involved in everyday living, unless you live in a protective bubble, which would be impossible. I think of that risk everytime I wash a vegetable or eat a salad (possible ecoli infection), these days and hope, "well, I hope today is not the day I get sick!".
    We will never be 100% safe from disease or accidents. If we were, the world would quickly become overpopulated and dare I say it, the population would be weaker for it. I believe the only way for humankind to survive long term is through natural selection. If I'm one of the weaker ones in the chain, then so be it. But right now, I don't plan on it! I have the highest of hopes that my genes beat the snot out of anything that tries to kill me and survive on through my son and grandchildren!

    1. Wow! Kathy, we really do think alike on this issue. I am glad you are brave enough to mention natural selection for the long term, as that is a subject that is very nearly taboo. As an individual who cares about my own survival and that of my daughter, I do use all the medical tricks at my disposal to keep us alive, in those instances where I think medical intervention helps. We don't do flu vaccines, because I think those do not help. But in a life threatening emergency, I would accept all the technologically advanced help that medical science makes available.

      I am not a Luddite. But... I recognize that in the long run, those whose progeny will survive over several generations into the future will be the ones who probably had the least access to medical intervention, since they will have been selected for survival by sheer dint of their natural resilience. That's one of the reasons I don't understand why mandatory use of medical technology -- even when it does help the individual to survive longer -- is supposed to foster a healthy population overall.