A Vaccinated Nation

Today’s blogger is Megan Hamby, a summer 2013 intern in the Archives I Reference and Processing Sections who worked with Army records.

While processing a series from the Department of Veterans Affairs (Record Group 15), I came across a piece of correspondence from the Colorado State Medical Society to Dr. J.C. Cornell, Supervisor, United States Public Health Services (USPHS) District Office in Denver, that pertained to a court trial that was set to occur on October 28, 1920.  The letter, dated October 15, 1920, contained a request for aid from the USPHS to supply a knowledgeable witness that would be able to testify for the value of smallpox vaccinations (see image of page one below). According to the letter, the “so called Colorado League for Medical Freedom or Colorado Medical Liberty League…is bringing legal action against the Denver School Board…to compel the Board to admit children to the schools who have not been vaccinated.”  It went on to mention the witnesses who were willing to go on the stand to testify against vaccinations while Dr. F.B. Stephenson, who wrote the letter, was attempting to strengthen their case for the trial.

 RG 15 (Department of Veterans Affairs); Correspondence and Other Records, 1918-1925 (NARA online Identifier 7423838); File: General Correspondence to the USPHS General Surgeon

The issue of vaccinations, which has been a heated topic of discussion even before the first smallpox vaccination was administered by Edward Jenner in 1796, has also been an issue in school systems for decades. Debates about government control over an individual’s rights to their own body and child rearing are just one side of the argument while the documented value of the vaccination and the eventual eradication of the smallpox virus are looked at by many within the world of medicine to outweigh the risks of the vaccine.

The witnesses that were called forward to testify against the vaccinations of children consisted of “a Chiropractor, an Osteopath, a Christian Scientist” and two doctors who, according to the letter, were not a “member of the County or State medical Society, nor of the American Medical Association.” While chiropractic and osteopathic practices were still fairly new at the time this letter was written and were both considered a form of alternative medicine, the lawyer defending the school board was on the hunt for witnesses to argue for the case of vaccinating children before they entered the school system and decided to turn to the United States Public Health Services for aid.

Having never been vaccinated, I found the letter to be of interest because it clearly shows that this topic has been an issue for quite some time. According to the Center for Disease Control website for school vaccinations requirements, there are exemptions made for those that do not wish to be vaccinated including medical proof of immunity and religious and philosophical beliefs. With many people attempting to fight based on their beliefs including such trials as Jacobson vs. Massachusetts and anti-vaccination movements, the situation addressed in the letter and the people involved are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the general public.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “School Vaccinations Requirements, Exemptions and Web Links,” http://www2a.cdc.gov/nip/schoolsurv/schImmRqmt.asp [accessed July 24, 2013].