There has never been a shortage of a vocal – and often irrational – minority to whip up a panic against inoculation efforts to combat the spread of infectious diseases. With the spread of education and public knowledge of vaccination, such anti-vaccine activists usually lose – but not before they cause significant damage. Sometimes, though, they win. One such anti-vaxxer victory occurred in the Victorian era in Montreal, in 1885. That April, smallpox arrived in the city, and by late summer, it had spread all over. The region experienced an epidemic with shockingly high fatality rates. More than 6000 died, and 13,000 were disfigured, most of them children. The majority would not have gotten sick in the first place, if not for the success of an irrational anti-vaxxer campaign.
By then, nearly a century had passed since Edward Jenner had developed a vaccine, and its effectiveness had been amply proven. Nonetheless, Montreal suffered an epidemic that killed off 40% of those who came down with an easily preventable disease. The reason was a successful anti-vaxxer campaign that stoked a panic about the inoculation. It was most effective in Montreal’s east side, inhabited mostly by poorer and less educated French Canadians. Misguided by unscrupulous and irrational anti-vaxxers, they made up nine tenths of those killed by the contagion. A prominent anti-vaxxer was a Dr. Alexander M. Ross, who edited a publication called The Anti-Vaccinator. In it, he falsely claimed that vaccination was “a fearful engine of destruction and death to children“.