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Report of Research on Social Resistance to Smallpox Vaccination in Victorian Britain from 1898 to 1907

Sarah Siegel, Class of 2008

In the first two weeks of August 2007 I traveled to London to research social resistance to smallpox vaccination in Victorian Britain from 1898 to 1907. During these years the British government provided a conscientious objection exception to otherwise mandatory smallpox vaccination for young children but failed to define what conscientious objection was. In the absence of a definition, people who objected to vaccination had to either pay a fine or go to court and defend the conscientiousness of their objections to a judge. I went to London looking for documentation of how people defined their objections—in other words, how people constructed conscience, especially across differences of class and gender. Specifically, I was looking for depositions and court records of who said what in conscientious objection proceedings.

I didn’t find them. Spending 8 hours a day in the London Metropolitan Archives, the National Archive, the British Library and the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine, I found none of the official court proceedings that preliminary index searches had promised. The records were either superficial, mislabeled, missing, or non-existent. So I turned to other kinds of sources. In the National Archive I found Home Office correspondence relating to conscientious objection cases that included opinions of the conscientious objector, local M.P.s, employers, the Home Office clerks handling the cases, and ultimately the officials responsible for deciding conscientious objectors’ fates. The Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine owns a vast collection of anti-vaccination material, and I was able to look at anti-vaccination books, pamphlets, and even the personal scrapbook of a prominent anti-vaccinator that spans more than 30 years of anti-vaccination press and activity. The British Library’s collection of anti-vaccination pamphlets and newspapers was particularly rich. There I was able to look at more than 20 years’ worth of the leading anti-vaccination monthly magazine, which sometimes included involved descriptions of the court proceedings I had been looking for in the first place. I had already seen one of the cases described in the anti-vaccination press in Home Office correspondence, and was able to track the way the activist press pruned the story to rouse more sympathy from its readers.

The labyrinthine course of my research drove me to madness—literally. When Britons went into court to defend the workings of their minds, most judges could look to only one source of precedent: madness trials where scientific evidence was provided to talk about mental soundness. I hope to explore the connection between these discourses of mental and political deviance and their pseudo-biological underpinnings at greater length in my Senior Thesis.