The Anti-Vaccination Society of America: Correspondence

Anti-vaccination handout, no date. The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of PhiladelphiaWe set ourselves the task yesterday of examining a set of materials in the College’s Historical Medical Library from the Anti-Vaccination Society of America. This organization was active in the late 1800s and early 1900s, along with a collection of other anti-vaccination leagues of somewhat confusing overlap and origin. The materials we have seem to come from the period that the society was active from the Terre Haute, Indiana, home of Frank D. Blue. Blue served as secretary of the society and seems to have been responsible for much of its day-to-day activity, including editing the society’s periodical, Vaccination. The society’s president at the time, L.H. Piehn, was a Nora Springs, Iowa, banker whose daughter was reported to have died from the effects of smallpox vaccination in 1894. One of our sources says that Blue took over the presidency from Piehn in the early 1900s, but we haven’t found independent documentation of that (Walloch KL. “A hot-bed of the anti-vaccine heresy”: opposition to compulsory vaccination in Boston and Cambridge, 1890-1905. Dissertation published 2007, The University of Wisconsin-Madison. Available on Google Books.)

Blue corresponded widely with other anti-vaccination societies, including the American Anti-Vaccination League in New York and societies in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, and England. Moreover, he seems to have been involved with a collection of other reform groups active at the time, including anti-vivisectionists (who often objected to the idea that rabies was an infectious disease), temperance advocates, vegetarians, homeopaths, phrenologists, “scientific palmists,” and a society for the prevention of premature burial (that latter was a particular interest of British anti-vaccinator William Tebb).

One document in the collection is a clipping of an article by Blue (no date) in Vaccination about effective ways that activists could respond to the resurgence of smallpox epidemics that occurred around the turn of the century. Blue says that he’s taking direction from a report of the American Humane Society and advocates measures including widespread circulation of the anti-vaccination periodical Vaccination (including specifically to newspaper editors and judges), establishing more anti-vaccination societies across the country, distributing tracts and other propaganda to the public, sponsoring prizes for essays and fiction on the “evils of vaccination,” and establishing a “press writing corps to write newspapers regarding vaccination facts.” Not mentioned in Blue’s essay is lobbying lawmakers, though in the collection is an English pledge intended for legislators to sign: “Will you vote AGAINST the enforcement of the Compulsory Clauses of the Vaccination Acts?...Will you vote AGAINST the practice of Vaccinating Children born in the Workhouse…” (dated 189X).

From Vaccination. The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of PhiladelphiaCopies of some of Blue’s letters are included in the materials. He appears to have followed the news of smallpox outbreaks around the country and then written to local newspapers and judges to encourage them to resist public calls for vaccination in response to the outbreaks. (See Michael Willrich’s excellent POX: An American History for more on this time period.) Oddly, there’s no documentation of the 1900 lawsuit that Blue brought against the Terre Haute school board, attempting to invalidate the exclusion of his son from school for not having been vaccinated. The suit went to the Indiana Supreme Court, which found that the school board was justified in excluding unvaccinated children during epidemics (Blue v Beach).

Anti-vaccination hymn, no date. The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of PhiladelphiaWe often read that the proliferation of information on the Internet helps to amplify anti-vaccination arguments and misinformation about vaccines. That, of course, is very likely true. But the collection of materials in our archives is evidence of a thriving public information campaign around the turn of the century, with widespread circulation and seemingly effective public relations strategies (if it’s fair to use that term ahistorically). And while the Internet makes possible circulation of songs by the anti-vaccination band The Refusers, it’s interesting to know that the turn-of-century anti-vaccination movement had an equivalent. We found the sheet music for “The Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Hymn,” which we are happy to share with you here.

As we process images from the Anti-Vaccination Society collection, we’ll make them available in our Gallery and on our Flickr stream.

[Added 12:03 pm, 3/8/12] Some of you have asked for words to the hymn, since the photograph is small. Here they are:

Brothers in heart united,/Raise we our voice today/Now let our vow be plighted,/To sweep this law away./Say shall our little children/Suffer around us still,/Curs’d by a cruel custom,/Doomed by a despot will.

Brothers, we’re marching onward/Progress lies on before;/Fain would the hand of terror/Close up the burning door./Seizing our new-born infants,/Blighting their lives with pain;/Filling their veins with poison,/Tainting each tender brain

Brothers, our fathers suffered,/Died that we might be free;/Died that a faith unfettered,/Right of each soul should be,/Yet doth a dark superstition/Peril the health of all;/Built on the sands of error,/Pray we it soon may fall!

Comments (6)Posted in:


Hi, my family doesn't get vaccines and I have always refused. Now I am going to surgical tech school and they require all me to have all my shots. I got my titers done and it came back that I was immune to everything except measles and rubella. I assumed it was from my mother breastfeeding. Then I found the record from when I gave birth to my son in December 2015 and the records indicate that I was given the MMR2 and tetanus I assume in my IV without my knowledge. Now the school is requiring me to get the measles and rubella shots. I'm also currently breastfeeding, so I am trying to find a Dr that will be willing to give me a just the measles and rubella shots and not the full MMR. From what I am told is that it is only marketed in the U.S. as MMR but I could order it seperate from another country, I would just need a Dr willing to give a non U.S. shot. Is there anyway that anyone can assist me with this. I live in Oklahoma but I am willing to travel to a neighbor state for this.

Hi Virginia, the single antigen vaccines are not available in this country. According to the CDC, pregnant women are able to take the MMR vaccine. Your doctor can advise you about your options. Best regards.

Thank you for making this fascinating material available for the public. Are there any digitized sources from this collection of anti-vaccination materials?

Yes it is really a good social work...

Great piece. Two points... 1) I cannot believe there is a hymn but am so delighted by this news. 2) I like very much the fact that on the book cover it also reads "And a Menace to Personal Liberty." So much of the discussions surrounding vaccinations involve the health risks - which are large and deserve attention. But the other half of the coin is that mandatory vaccinations are an obvious and huge wart on Americans personal liberties.

Thank you Our collection is a fascinating glimpse at a period that supported many health/medical reform movements. Willrich's book, mentioned above, is a great place to learn about the tensions between public health and personal/civil liberties and how those have been articulated in the American judicial system. And of course we are still seeing that balance explored in, for example, the recent legislation in California that requires that parents consult with a licensed healthcare provider in order to obtain a philosophical exemption to school vaccination requirements for their child. Let's not forget that immunization is not the only area where governmental entities aim to safeguard public health by imposing regulations on individuals and groups.

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