The Reception of Germ Theory and Vaccine Therapy at SU in the late Nineteenth Century

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By Aidan Clark

It is well known that with every scientific discovery comes disbelievers, nay-sayers, and even conspiracists. Since its conception, vaccinations have been contested by anti-vaccination beliefs. To learn the source of public resistance to vaccines, examples of its implementation in other nations may provide the necessary insight. Qualitative research of numerous historical, scholarly, and peer-reviewed texts reveals much about the nature of the controversial history of germ theory and vaccinations. Evidently, few physicians, and even fewer people understand the history or science behind vaccinations.[1] There is a trend of government involvement affecting the public perception of the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Outside of America- Cuba, China, and Japan all experienced unique implementations of vaccines.

The manner in which the science and history surrounding vaccinations is communicated to the public is another potential influencing factor. As B. Bensaude-Vincent points out, there is an ever present and ever increasing gap between scientists and the public. Naturally, this gap creates an uninformed public, and what fills the void instead of knowledge is uncertainty, which inevitably leads to fear.[2] The manner in which scientific knowledge has been disseminated to the public has largely followed the deficit model. The deficit model, as B. Bensaude-Vincent explains, characterizes the public as uninformed, unintelligent, and nothing more than recipients of scientific advancements[3]. The likelihood that the deficit model is a large influencing factor in the development of the controversy surrounding vaccines, and perhaps other scientific controversies, is great.

Southwestern University adopted the deficit model to communicate scientific knowledge as early as 1891. This is evident in the Alamo and San Jacinto monthly of March that year, in which is a collection of articles by the Alamo and San Jacinto societies. The article of importance is titled “The Germ Theory of Vaccinations” by one W.D. Gordon. The article is essentially a general historical background, and simplified scientific explanation of vaccinations and germ theory. More importantly, it is an example of Southwestern utilizing the deficit model of scientific communication. W.D. Gordon himself makes the assumption that few physicians and few patients fully understand the science and history of germ theory and vaccinations.[4] He then begins clearly explaining in layman's terms the historical and scientific backing. This correlates with Bensaude-Vincents definition of the deficit model in which the public is uninformed and simply receives the benefits without participating.[5] There is no way for the public to participate in this model, so the article serves purely to popularize the idea of vaccinations.

The communication of scientific knowledge, especially pertaining to medicine, is largely in the hands of physicians. W.D. Gordon implies however that physicians are largely uninformed when it comes to the history and science of vaccinations and germ theory.[6] This leaves only the scientific societies such as the San Jacinto and Alamo societies at Southwestern to spread knowledge to the local public, ie Georgetown Texas. As Bruce V. Lewenstein explains, scientific societies played a large role in not only the popularization of science, but more importantly, the marketing of scientific discoveries.[7] The involvement of scientific societies in the popularization of science with the intention of marketing the discoveries creates tension between the rich and poor. As CP Snow points out, there is already a long lasting gap between the rich and poor that is widening due to the capital requirement of science.[8] To then go ahead and market scientific discoveries to the poorer public who already is unsure of the richer scientific population and their discoveries causes the tension to grow more. As tension mounts, it is not hard to imagine an outcome in which the uncertainty surrounding vaccinations results in an anti-scientific conspiracy.

While the controversy surrounding vaccinations is in the forefront of scientific controversy, there is much to be learned from examples of controversy elsewhere. Controversy that has arisen due to the gulf between scientists and the public is nothing new or isolated. In fact, it has occurred all over the world and all throughout history. As an example, Steven Shapin points out that Official Newtonian science was initially questioned during the enlightenment, despite it being incredibly well established at the time.[9] Similarly, the basis of vaccination is germ theory which has been researched abundantly, and the efficacy of vaccinations is unquestionable. The apparent truth is that no matter how well a scientific discovery is established, poor communication via the deficit model will get in the way of consensus. If a consensus cannot be reached, the progress of science as a whole can become stagnant.

In an attempt to better understand the relationship between vaccines, and its controversy, one must research the history of vaccines and germ theory. The Alamo and San Jacinto Monthly publication from March of the year 1891 is preserved at the Sotuhwestern special collections. This specific publication was based in Georgetown, and edited by the Alamo and San Jacinto societies, consisting of Willie Boyce, R.L. Daniel, J.L. Brooks, and H.A. Alan, with the chief editor being W.D Gordon. This edition of the publication contains an article by W.D. Gordon himself titled “The Germ Theory of Vaccination ''. The article is a direct example of the attitude a respected doctor of the era held regarding vaccination. Following a detailed history of germ theory, W.D Gordon describes vaccinations as having the ‘utmost benefit to humanity’ of any other medicine.[10] With this glowing praise, one must wonder what turn of events led to the current opposition to vaccinations.

The smallpox vaccination did not make its way to Cuba until 1803 when small amounts were being transported across Latin America. It was not until one Dr. Vincente Ferrer made strides in producing and implementing the vaccine. Ferrer pioneered a new method of administering vaccines, where he utilized an infected calf. The standard option for vaccination at the time was arm to arm, which was considered much less sanitary. The introduction of his technique clashed with the opinions of physicians who preferred arm to arm.[11] As it would seem, the main topic of discussion in Cuba has been about which method of vaccination is best. In comparison to America, neither country seems to be able to reach a consensus regarding vaccines. If physicians in Cuba were as unaware as physicians in America regarding the history of vaccines[12], that could be a source of the disagreement.

            In China, tuberculosis was a major problem up until the 1930’s when the Nationalist Party rose to power and established the Ministry of Health. Prior to that, the understanding of the disease was that it was familial, rather than a matter of germs. The Ministry of Health expanded and modernized Chinese healthcare, and classified tuberculosis as a disease that merited serious attention. Initial efforts to prevent the disease did not involve vaccinations, but rather education and isolation programs. By the 1930s the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine was the standard preventative measure for tuberculosis, but the Chinese government had doubts about the vaccine, and claimed that its efficacy was not verifiable.[13] It was not until a researcher named Wang Liang made strides in normalizing the vaccine in China, but the hesitance to its integration remained on a governmental level. Throughout the 1940’s, many pieces of scientific literature on the BCG vaccine were written by Chinese physicians, but the lack of consensus remained. In 1937, the second Sino-Japanese war began, and China was determined to win. To improve their odds of victory, they cut funding to research into the BCG vaccine by two thirds.[14] Much like in America, China never seemed to be able to come to a full consensus regarding the efficacy of vaccines. It was amongst the physicians and politicians where the disagreement laid, which is to be expected, presuming the same level of ignorance regarding the history of vaccines as is present in America[15]  The citizens of China, generally speaking, required the vaccine greatly, but the lack of governmental implementation defied the needs of the people. In contrast to America, the presence of governmental implementation was one of the causes of the lack of consensus. It may be that the ongoing wars in China diluted the apparent need for a consensus to be made at all. In America, the lack of ongoing war created an increased opportunity for rumination about the efficacy of vaccinations, resulting in a lack of consensus.

Japan was focused on vaccinations prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, before they even had a practical government. Medicine at the time was privatized, and not of the interest of the government. Medical and scientific discussion with the rest of the world was essentially non-existent. Rather, medical knowledge was privately shared amongst families, and lineage structures. Vaccines were present in Japan as early as 1804, thanks to Dutch-Japanese trade routes. The downside is that the only individuals who could obtain vaccines were Japanese physicians who could speak Dutch and knew about the value of vaccines.[16] By the 1820’s, Dutch books detailing Jennerian vaccinations were circulating Japan. By the 1840’s, Western medicine, including vaccinations, was prevalent in Japan, but only to the rich overlords and merchants. By 1850, vaccination clinics were present in Japan, but the government was not interested in helping the implementation at all. It was not until 1860, when a government in Japan showed interest in assisting implementation. The Tokugawa government recruited experienced vaccinators to spread the immunization to thousands of Japanese children. That same year, a public clinic was opened in the capital at the time, Edo. Later that decade, the Tokugawa government relinquished its rule to oligarchs once again. Interestingly, it was the oligarchy government that really helped spread and implement vaccinations.[17] Evidently, there was little resistance to the implementation of vaccines in Japan. The reason for the lack of resistance is that the vaccines were known by private, trusted, shaman like physicians prior to the government involving itself at all. Unlike American physicians, these shamans had a full understanding of the history and science of vaccines.[18][19] The people of Japan understood the history of, trusted and used vaccines well before the Japanese government did. Because the people already understood the history of vaccines, they accepted government implementation with open arms. In contrast to America, few people knew any history regarding vaccines prior to governmental implementation, as such, the implementation was resisted.

The deficit model has been the predominant method of communicating science for centuries, yet its effectiveness remains in question. Alternative models such as the participatory model may be significantly more effective at engaging the public while keeping them informed. Scientific societies are the main groups practising the deficit model, in which they condescend to the ‘uniformed’ public in layman's terms as they are simply the recipients of science and nothing more. Southwestern University had adopted the deficit model with their very own San Jacinto and Alamo scientific societies and their monthly publications. The effect the deficit model has on scientific outcomes is negative, as the public becomes more and more unsure of the scientists and their discoveries. Additionally, the fact that the discoveries were marketed predominantly to the poor from the wealthy, made the gap between the public and the scientific community even greater.

[1]. Gordon, WD. The Germ Theory of Vaccination. (Georgetown, Texas: Alamo and San Jacinto Monthly), 430

[2].  Bensaude-Vincent, B. A genealogy of the increasing gap between science and

the public. (Institute of Physics Publishing) 103

[3].  Bensaude-Vincent, B. A Historical Perspective on Science and Its “Others”. (University of Chicago Press) 362

[4].  Gordon, WD. The Germ Theory of Vaccination. (Georgetown, Texas: Alamo and San Jacinto Monthly), 430

[5].  Bensaude-Vincent,  A Historical Perspective on Science and Its “Others”, 362

[6].  Gordon. The Germ Theory of Vaccination, 430           

[7]. Lewenstein, Bruce V. Popularization, 668

[8]. Snow, CP. The Two Cultures. 46

[9].  Shapin, Steven. Science and the Public. (Routledge) 995

[10]. Gordon. The Germ Theory of Vaccination, 430-432

[11]. Gonzales, H Stephanie. The Cowpox Controversy: Memory and the Politics of Public

Health in Cuba (John Hopkins University Press, 2018), 111-131  

[12]. Gordon. The Germ Theory of Vaccination, 430

[13]. Brazelton, A Mary. Danger in the Air: Tuberculosis Control and BCG Vaccination

in the Republic of China, 1930–1949 (University of Hawai'i Press), 140-145

 [14]. Brazelton, Danger in the Air, 151

[15]. Gordon. The Germ Theory of Vaccination, 430          

[16]. Jannetta, Ann. Jennerian Vaccination and the Creation of a National Public

Health Agenda in Japan, 1850–1900 (Johns Hopkins University Press) 126-134

[17]. ibid

[18]. ibid

[19]. Gordon. The Germ Theory of Vaccination, 430

The Reception of Germ Theory and Vaccine Therapy at SU in the late Nineteenth Century