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CODA: Turn-of-the-Century Smallpox Vaccination

Ben Cater’s article in the winter 2016 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly introduces us to the religious and cultural dynamics that pitted working and lower middle-class Mormons accustomed to popular folk medicine against professionally trained doctors and public health officials over smallpox vaccination at the turn of the twentieth century. Religion was the wedge in the vaccination controversy—and it was a wedge with particular force in Salt Lake City, as prominent voices on both sides weighed in on the issue.

Surprisingly, as Cater writes in his larger study, a dissertation completed at the University of Utah titled “Health, Medicine, and Power in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah, 1869–1945,” religious wars over health and sanitation in Salt Lake City largely dissipated thereafter. Progressive reformers from various religions—the LDS church included— worked together on public health initiatives ranging from sewage and sanitation to welfare services for the poor and workplace safety. Race and class overshadowed religious conflict in twentieth-century health reforms.

Views about vaccination have a particularly interesting back story. “The Saints, who historically followed their own prophetic medical codes, and as a result usually opposed vaccination, increasingly advocated vaccination and regular medicine after the Second World War,” Cater argues. By 1976, perhaps ironically given earlier opposition to vaccination, Salt Lake City had become the most vaccinated municipality in the country, and LDS officials were supporting immunization for the swine flu. As Cater writes on page 346 in his dissertation:

Progressive members of the church led this change, as did First Presidency, which in September 1976 issued a circular advising all churchgoers to obtain the swine flu immunization, which it dubbed, “a cure without a disease.”[1] The Deseret News published favorable articles about the vaccine and the apparent deadliness of the swine flu, as did the Salt Lake Tribune; photographs of Utahns lining up at vaccination centers and receiving jet injections of the vaccine served to rally support for it. By early December, more than half of Utah’s residents received vaccinations to yield a higher rate than the national average.[2] To be sure, some Mormons rejected immunization—and at least one person claimed medical injury due to vaccination—but they remained an exception in a religious community that seemed increasingly “normal,” and which underwent a revolution in its public health and medical understanding.[3] Most Mormons viewed orthodox medicine not as a Victorian-era pseudo-science that empowered gentiles over Mormons—a view that many Saints held during the late nineteenth century—but as a value-neutral endeavor used and appreciated by Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

This is not to say that religion did not influence the way people thought about public health. Cater acknowledges that while his research begins to explain what he calls “a revolution in its public health and medical understanding,” more work needs to be done in this area. Consider, for example, that KSL has reported that “each year since 2009, kindergarten and seventh grade [immunization] exemptions in Utah have crept up.”[4] Parents have all kinds of reasons for choosing not to immunize their children. But what’s behind the uptick in exceptions, and what role, if any, does religion continue play in this issue?

Perhaps another talented historian will extend Cater’s research to the present to explore more contemporary trends.

 

[1] http://onthisdayinmormonhistory.blogspot.com/2008/10/september-28th.html.

[2] Deseret News, September 27, 1976; September 30, 1976; October 1, 1976; October 13, 1976; Salt Lake Tribune, October 12, 1976; October 13, 1976; October 14, 1976; Garfield County News, September 23, 1976; September 30, 1976; November 25, 1976; Vernal Express, November 4, 1976; November 11, 1976; December 9, 1976.

[3] A man from Kaysville, Utah, filed a tort lawsuit against the federal government and its immunization program after suffering GBS. One Utahn also died allegedly due to the vaccination. Salt Lake Tribune, December 17, 1976.

[4] Daphne Chen, “With more parents choosing not to vaccinate, Utah on brink of losing ‘herd immunity,’” KSL.com, accessed February 15, 2016, http://www.ksl.com/?sid=38451248&nid=148&fm=home_page&s_cid=toppick2.