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The History of Vaccine Preventable Diseases and the Vaccine Debate



Updated May 11, 2014

Although a child with a fever and a rash sometimes leads a concerned grandparent to think that the child might have measles, many parents have forgotten just how common today's vaccine preventable diseases used to be.

Many don't even know about the fear that lead to closings of playgrounds and swimming pools during the summers before the polio vaccine was developed.

Since deaths from vaccine preventable diseases aren't in the news very much and few parents know children who have had measles, polio, or even pertussis, it can lead them to believe that the risks of getting their kids vaccinated outweigh the benefits.

The Vaccine Debate

Not surprisingly, there has been a debate about the safety and importance of vaccines even before the first vaccine was introduced. Benjamin Franklin reportedly initially opposed variolation, in which healthy people would have pus from scabs of people who had smallpox rubbed on to their skin. This usually produced a much milder form of smallpox, although up to 2% of people vaccinated in this way died. That was much better than the 15% to 30% of people who died if they got smallpox and weren't vaccinated though.

Benjamin Franklin's changed his mind and later supported variolation after his unvaccinated 4-year-old son died of smallpox. He wrote in his autobiography that he "regretted bitterly" not vaccinating his child against smallpox.

History of Vaccine Preventable Diseases

Vaccine preventable diseases have had a prominent place in history and have affected people in history for a long time. Being reminded of these events may help people as they debate the vaccine issue for themselves:

  • the only son of Dr. Abraham Jacobi, who is often referred to as the "father of American pediatrics," died of diphtheria in early childhood.
  • the 7-year-old daughter of the Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, died from a measles infection in 1962, the year before a measles vaccine became available. He went on to become a strong supporter of vaccines, saying "In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunized are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunization is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out. Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunized, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year." It is interesting that the final version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was completed in 1963, was said to be very much different than the original manuscript written in 1961, in which he had included a son for Mr. Wonka, Freddie Wonka.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1933 to 1945, likely contracted polio in 1921 and was paralyzed from the waist down. The first polio vaccine didn't become available until 1955.
  • now focused on infant mortality and preventing birth defects, the March of Dimes organization began as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and worked to to aid patients with polio and fund research for a polio vaccine. Eddie Cantor, a popular entertainer, helped raise millions of dollars for the foundation by getting people to send dimes to President Roosevelt at the White House.
  • Abraham Lincoln's 3-year-old son died of diphtheria in 1850 and the daughter of President Grover Cleveland died of diphtheria in 1904 (which is supposedly why we have the Baby Ruth candy bar). The diphtheria vaccine became available in 1923 and began to be widely used in the 1930s.
  • Mary Gilbreth, the sister of Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr, who wrote the biographical novel Cheaper by the Dozen, about his 12 brothers and sisters, died of diphtheria when she was five years old (1912).

Countless other children who died from these now vaccine preventable diseases, as 1 in 750 children once died from whooping cough. There used to be 10,000 deaths a year from diphtheria, 1,000 deaths from Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) meningitis, and about 1 to 3 deaths out of every 1,000 cases of measles.

The above cases just highlight that these infections could affect almost anyone and that the vaccination debate is not new.

Other interesting facts about vaccines and vaccine preventable diseases:

  • the game Candy Land was invented by a patient trying to cheer up kids in a polio ward in 1948
  • the last person to naturally contract smallpox was a healthcare worker who was too frightened to get the smallpox vaccine. He fortunately survived and became an advocate for vaccinating other people.


Vaccine preventable diseases: current perspectives in historical context, Part I. Weisberg SS - Dis Mon - 01-SEP-2007; 53(9): 422-66.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. by Benjamin Franklin.

MEASLES: A dangerous illness by ROALD DAHL.

Polio. Weisberg SS - Dis Mon - October 2007; 53(10); 503-509

Plotkin: Vaccines, 5th ed.

The history of the smallpox vaccine. Stewart AJ - J Infect - 01-MAY-2006; 52(5): 329-34.

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