Arthur Conan Doyle spoke against anti-vaxxers in 1880s

Arthur Conan Doyle spoke against anti-vaxxers in 1880s

Anti-vaxxer movement has long history

People opposed to vaccinations are getting a lot of press in recent years, thanks to a now-debunked 1997 study, but it turns out the argument goes back to the inception of inoculation.

A cartoon said to be from a 1930s booklet warning about the dangers of anti-vaccination. (Stock image)

It turns out the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, was a big proponent of mandatory vaccination, writing long letters to the editor on the subject.

Responding to an early anti-vaxxer, one Colonel Wintle, Doyle’s arguments are eerily familiar.

“He undertakes a vast responsibility when, in the face of the overwhelming testimony of those who are brought most closely into contact with disease, he incites others, through the public press, to follow the same course and take their chance of infection in defiance of hospital statistics,” wrote Doyle in the July 27, 1887 issue of the Hampshire County Times (Portsmouth).

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The first vaccine experiments started in the late 1700s, in England, when Edward Jenner, a country doctor, began working on smallpox and cowpox.

By the time Doyle was writing his letters to the editor, Britain had passed compulsory vaccination laws, in 1821. By the 1830s, after an initial generation had been vaccinated, followed by a marked decline of smallpox causes in the U.S. and Europe, an anti-vaccination movement was building.

Doyle’s letter makes a clear point of that decline, at the same time as accusing his opponent’s letter as containing a “Jumble of statistics and quotations.”

“The death-rate varies from less than one in a hundred among the well-vaccinated to the enormous mortality of 37 per cent among Colonel Wintle’s followers,” wrote Doyle.

Hobbies and fads are harmless “as a rule,” Doyle wrote but when a hobby took the form of encouraging people to neglect healthy precautions, “it becomes a positive danger to the community at large.”

“The interests at stake are so vital that an enormous responsibility rests with the men whose notion of progress is to revert to the condition of things which existed in the dark ages before the dawn of medical science,” Doyle wrote.

Doyle is also very strident about how general health had been improved, though it would take another century before smallpox was considered eradicated.

“The ravages made by smallpox in the days of our ancestors can hardly be realized by the present sanitary and well-vaccinated generation,” wrote Doyle, adding that historians of the Georgian era wrote “there is hardly ever a missing relative who is not described as ‘having pockmarks upon his face.’”

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“As to the serious results of vaccination, which Colonel Wintle describes as indescribable, they are to a very large extent imaginary.”

It’s often said that some things never change — and after more than two centuries of vaccination, we’re still having the same argument.