Ben Franklin’s Take on Vaccines

Mitchell Kramer portrays Ben Franklin. Learn more at bfranklin.org

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the heated debate about vaccinations escalates and is falling along partisan and ideological lines. While the conversation about vaccines has popularized in recent decades, the divisive nature of the topic has been seen for centuries; the controversy surrounding vaccines dates back to the 1700s. Mitchell Kramer, a PRowl client, is an expert on Benjamin Franklin and sees a stunning parallel in the public’s response to vaccinations during today’s COVID-19 pandemic and the smallpox epidemic of Franklin’s time.

In the 1700s, inoculations gave a patient a small amount of a disease in order for them to build immunitya practice to the modern vaccine. Ben Franklin shied away from this practice until his young child died from Smallpox, a disease preventable by inoculation. He expressed extreme regret about not inoculating him and urged other parents to not make this same mistake while writing to doctors and political leaders in both America and England, promoting inoculation. He changed his opinion and in his time, this was rare.

The argument about inoculation mirrors today’s argument about vaccination. Objections were backed by personally held sanitary, religious and political beliefs during Franklin’s time. Many religious leaders encouraged their congregations to abstain from inoculation, stating it was against religious teaching. There was also hesitancy about the validity of the inoculation’s effectiveness and potential dangers. Today, these themes continue to dominate the discourse.

This age-old debate isn’t new and probably won’t be going away anytime soon. As unprecedented as these times seem, it appears to be a reincarnation of times experienced by our Founding Fathers. Perhaps this is simply an observation to understand human nature or this can offer us wisdom about how to handle the controversy. Either way, we may feel that these are unprecedented times, but I believe Benjamin Franklin would beg to differ.

—Daisy Frankum

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