The Poor and Poorly Informed Paid a Terrible Price for Believing Anti-Vaccine Activists
By the time smallpox struck Montreal in 1885, 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-vaccination campaign that raised dumb objections to and stoked an unfounded panic about the inoculation. The fear tactics were most effective in Montreal’s east side, inhabited mostly by poorer and less educated French Canadians.
Misguided by unscrupulous and irrational anti-vaccine activists, those unfortunates made up nine tenths of those killed by the contagion. Vaccine opponents made it their mission to whip up worries and a moral panic about the smallpox inoculation. One of the more prominent of their numbers was a Dr. Alexander M. Ross, who edited a publication called The Anti-Vaccinator. He falsely claimed that “vaccination is useless and dangerous“, and that the vaccine was “a fearful engine of destruction and death to children“. His efforts eventually whipped up a panic against the smallpox vaccine.
We are overwhelmingly small fish in a very large pond. However, the egos of some of us refuse to accept that. Then as now, many nineteenth century anti-vaccine activists were driven not by reason and logic, but by an emotional need to become big fish. As such, facts or reason could never get them to alter a position that they had not reached based on facts or reason. They figured that they had discovered a nearly effortless shortcut – reading a few pamphlets then, watching some YouTube videos now – that gave them superior insider knowledge. The possession of such knowledge made them feel smarter than genuinely smart people – the experts who had put in years of hard work and study to understand complex things.
In the bizarre world of weird conspiracies – be they anti-vaccine, flat earth, 9/11 trutherism, Q-Anon, etc., – the believers are suddenly smart according to those who believe as they do. Although without any significant accomplishments or merit, belief in the conspiracy makes them “enlightened”, and allows them to lord it over everybody else. Without significant effort or serious study, they can still act like and be accepted as experts within their niche group, and validate each other’s need to be acknowledged as smart. That instantly transforms them into big fish in a small pond, and nothing will get them to leave that pond. The 1885 Montreal anti-vaccine activists, like their ilk today, were not so much proselytizing their anti-vaccine conspiracy as they were defending their own egos.
19th Century Montreal’s Anti-Vaccine Panic Created by an Unscrupulous Quack Doctor
As smallpox raced through Montreal in 1885, anti-vaccine activists such as the quack Dr. Alexander M. Ross led a campaign that urged refusal of the vaccine. His publication, The Anti-Vaccinator, derided the vaccinated as being “driven like dumb animals“, and falsely stated that “vaccination does not prevent Small-pox in any case“. That was bad. What was worse was that Ross had quietly vaccinated himself at the start of the epidemic. He nonetheless urged others to avoid vaccination, and led an anti-vaccine campaign because it gave him an opportunity to pose as a hero. Although over a hundred years separate us from Dr. Ross, his methods in the nineteenth century were remarkably similar to those used by anti-vaccine activists in the twenty first.
Like his modern equivalents, Ross dismissed the alarm of public health officials as “senseless panic“, and decried a perceived violation of personal liberty. He also peddled conspiracies about the greed of the medical establishment, exaggerated the risk of vaccines, and cherry picked “evidence” from a minority of like-minded quack doctors who opposed vaccines. Ross and other anti-vaccine activists also made up sensationalist lies, in which vaccine administrators invaded women’s bedrooms (with the women always dramatically in states of undress) to tie them and their children down and forcibly vaccinate them. As seen below, his efforts triggered a violent anti-vaccine riot.
Montreal’s Board of Health estimated that there were 2000 smallpox cases in the city by September 2nd, 1885. Within a few weeks, the numbers had doubled to more than 4000. That was when the authorities began to take sterner measures to combat the illness. They included the forcible removal of people from dwellings conditions – mostly in poor neighborhoods, such as predominately French Canadian ones in the city’s east side – where isolation was impossible. On September 28th, vaccination was made mandatory. The response was “a howling mob“, primed for weeks and whipped into a frenzy by publications such as Dr. Ross’ The Anti-Vaccinator. They surrounded the Board of Health’s East End Branch Office, and destroyed it.
The authorities turned to law enforcement. The police were called in, but they were routed and chased away by the mob. The anti-vaccine crowd then rampaged through the city, smashed the windows of pharmacies that sold the smallpox vaccine, and vandalized the homes of health officials. The Central Police Station’s windows were all broken, and the chief of police was stabbed and pelted with stones. Rioters fired at police, who armed themselves with rifles and bayonets, and fired above the rioters’ heads. The cops finally clubbed the mob until it dispersed into small groups. They continued the violent assaults and destruction of property around Montreal. Eventually, 1400 soldiers were called in to patrol the city and prevent a recurrence, and health workers were issued revolvers.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading