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War of conscience: antivaccination and the battle for medical freedom during World War I
  1. Susan McPherson
  1. School of Health and Social Care, University of Essex, Colchester CO4 3SQ, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Susan McPherson, School of Health and Social Care, University of Essex, Colchester CO4 3SQ, UK; smcpher{at}essex.ac.uk

Abstract

The nineteenth century British antivaccination movement attracted popular and parliamentary support and ultimately saw the 1853 law which had made smallpox vaccination compulsory nullified by the 1898 ‘conscientious objector’ clause. In keeping with popular public health discourse of the time, the movement had employed rhetoric associated with sanitary science and liberalism. In the early twentieth century new discoveries in bacteriology were fuelling advances in vaccination and the medical establishment was increasingly pushing for public health to move towards more interventionist medical approaches. With the onset of war in 1914, the medical establishment hoped to persuade the government to introduce compulsory typhoid inoculation for soldiers. This article analyses antivaccination literature, mainstream newspapers and medical press along with parliamentary debates to examine how the British antivaccination movement engaged with this new threat of compulsion by expanding the rhetoric of ‘conscience’ and emphasising medical freedom while also asserting scientific critique concerning the effectiveness of vaccines and the new laboratory based diagnostic practices. In spite of ‘conscience’ fitting well with an emerging public health discourse of individual subjectivity, the mainstream press ridiculed the idea of working-class soldiers having a conscience, coalescing around the idea that ‘conscientious objection’ be reserved for spiritual, philosophical and educated men who objected to military service. Moreover, in spite of engaging in reasoned scientific critique, parliament and press consorted in the demarcation of scientific knowledge as exclusive to medical scientists, reflecting a growing allegiance between the state and the medical establishment during the war. Any scientific arguments critical of medical orthodoxy were subjugated, labelled as ‘crank’ or ‘faddist’ as well as unpatriotic. The antivaccination narratives around conscience contributed to or were part of an evolving discourse on consent and ethics in medicine. Potential parallels are drawn with current and likely future debates around vaccination and counterhegemonic scientific approaches.

  • public health
  • history
  • infectious diseases
  • law
  • medical ethics/bioethics

Data availability statement

Data sources include publicly available open access records from Hansard plus newspaper archives available publicly from a range of digital repositories depending on reader access options. Vaccination Inquirer archives are available in the British Library.

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Data availability statement

Data sources include publicly available open access records from Hansard plus newspaper archives available publicly from a range of digital repositories depending on reader access options. Vaccination Inquirer archives are available in the British Library.

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Footnotes

  • Contributors SM conceived of the article, analysed the material and wrote the article.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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