Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Anti-vaccinationists past and present

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 24 August 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:430
  1. Robert M Wolfe (, assistant professor,
  2. Lisa K Sharp, assistant professor
  1. Department of Family Medicine, Northwestern University's Feinberg Medical School, Morton Building 1-658, 303 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611-3008, USA
  1. Correspondence to: R M Wolfe
  • Accepted 9 January 2002

The British Vaccination Act of 1840 was the first incursion of the state, in the name of public health, into traditional civil liberties. The activities of today's propagandists against immunisations are directly descended from, indeed little changed from, those of the anti-vaccinationists of the late nineteenth century, say Robert Wolfe and Lisa Sharp

Much attention has been given on the internet to the “anti-vaccination” movement—using vaccination in its wider sense of “any immunisation”—and its possible harmful effects on uptake rates of immunisations. Many observers believe that the movement is something new and a consequence of concerns arising from the large number of immunisations now given, but concern over vaccination began shortly after the introduction of smallpox vaccination and has continued unabated ever since. Methods of disseminating information have changed since the 19th century, but the concerns and activities of anti-vaccination movements in the United Kingdom and their counterparts in the United States have changed little since then. The historian Martin Kaufman, writing about anti-vaccination movements in 19th and early 20th century America, concluded his paper with this comment, “With the improvements in medical practice and the popular acceptance of the state and federal governments' role in public health, the anti-vaccinationists slowly faded from view, and the movement collapsed.”1 We hope that a brief historical examination of anti-vaccination sentiments will give medical professionals a better sense of perspective about the groups opposing immunisations and their arguments.

Summary points

  • Edward Jenner was largely responsible for introducing vaccination to the medical community, and widespread vaccination began in the early 1800s

  • Vaccination acts passed between 1840 and 1853 made vaccination compulsory in Britain, and almost immediately anti-vaccination leagues challenged the law as a violation of civil liberty

  • In 1898 the vaccination law was amended to allow exemption for parents, based on conscience, which introduced the …

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