The journal Vaccination, from January 1901. (Harvard Libraries)

A half century before the introduction of the measles vaccine, America was already home to a small but vocal anti-vaccination movement. Largely inspired by a parallel movement overseas, the American version contended that vaccines -- particularly, the smallpox vaccine -- were the product of a vast medical conspiracy.

Turn-of-the-century anti-vaccination activists produced quite a lot of written material to encourage Americans to avoid and abandon vaccinations. From those pamphlets and periodicals, it's pretty easy to find common threads between the anti-vaxxer movement of today and what it was like 100 years ago.

Vaccines "caused" an increase in cancer

Before autism was something anti-vaccination activists linked to inoculations (despite substantial evidence to the contrary), other common diseases were said to be the result of vaccination -- once again without a demonstration of causality.

Consider this, from a 1898 pamphlet on "blood poisoning by vaccination with animal diseases," by one Edward Alfred Heath:

Note that whoever marked up the Wellcombe Library's copy of the book found that passage particularly enlightening. It's marked both with red pen and with exclamation points in the margins.

"Cancer is reported to be increasing not only in England and the Continent, but in all parts of the world where vaccination is practised," British activist William Tebb wrote in an 1892 paper.

The idea came in part from Tebb's beliefs about what caused cancer: "It is allowed by physicians that cancer may be caused by impregnating the blood with impure matter."

Vaccines aren't as good as alternative medicine

The Anti-Vaccination Society of America's publication, Vaccination ("A Journal of Health, Justice and Liberty, That Tells the Truth About Vaccination"), featured advertising for companion magazines, such as the Vegetarian, that advocated for a form of alternative medicine. Fasting, vegetarian diet, hydrotherapy and hygiene, they suggested, could prevent and cure diseases.

Vaccination. Google-digitized in the public domain.
(Harvard Libraries)

A similar thread runs through the modern movement, even as it defies traditional political divisions. It's a belief held among some "crunchy moms" who are worried about putting chemicals they consider to be unnatural in their kids bodies.

Or, as journalist Seth Moonkin put it:

I talked to a public health official and asked him what's the best way to anticipate where there might be higher than normal rates of vaccine noncompliance, and he said take a map and put a pin wherever there's a Whole Foods. I sort of laughed, and he said, "No, really, I'm not joking." It's those communities with the Prius driving, composting, organic food-eating people.

Vaccines are the result of a conspiracy by the medical establishment

This advertisement appeared in the Commoner in 1919:


(Library of Congress)

Ninety-five years later, the Focus Autism Foundation, an anti-vaccination group, provided a way around the bad science of Andrew Wakefield's autism-vaccination link study by claiming that it had proof that the Centers for Disease Control was part of a massive cover-up over the link.

Vaccines are the result of a conspiracy by the lamestream media

J.M. Peebles wrote an entire anti-vaccination book after the school system in San Diego refused to let pupils without vaccines attend classes. (Sound familiar?) In the book, Peebles accused the media of refusing to give equal weight to the anti-vaccination argument, as part of an elite power conspiracy theory that, again, should sound familiar.

You can find a modern version of this theory, probably, in the comments section of this article.

Vaccines were "dirty"

Many adherents of the old anti-vaccination movement proposed an alternate theory to explain how human beings contracted disease: Blood poisoning.

"It is no exaggeration to assume that nine-tenths of the diseases that afflict mankind have their origin in some species of blood poisoning," J.M. Peebles wrote in an anti-vaccination book. Along with many other American anti-vaccination activists, Peebles believed that good sanitation was the only effective way to stop diseases.

That idea of sanitation, framed in opposition to vaccines, was popularized by a British activist named William Tebb, who believed that vaccines were not only ineffective at stopping disease, but that they also caused it, by "dirtying" blood that was previously "pure."

Here's a particularly passionate example of that rhetoric, from a 1913 pamphlet petitioning the Connecticut General Assembly to overturn compulsory vaccination laws:

An open letter to the Governor and members of the General Assembly of Connecticut : showing the evils of compulsory vaccination and certain deaths caused by the practice of cowpoxing
(Yale University)

And here is a poem from the Anti-Vaccination Society of America's journal, Vaccination:

A lot of that language was specific to the smallpox vaccine, but there are some current parallels.

Jenny McCarthy, one of the modern movement's best-known celebrities, regularly refers to vaccines as being full of "toxins." Activists often accuse the medical community of lying about the presence of "secret" vaccine additives that they believe have harmful side effects.

The CDC has a list of all the possible additives one might find in a vaccine. And, the CDC notes: "Chemicals are added to vaccines to inactivate a virus or bacteria and stabilize the vaccine, helping to preserve the vaccine and prevent it from losing its potency over time. The amount of chemical additives found in vaccines is very small."

Related: 

The good news is that more Californians are vaccinating their kids

Ben Franklin lost a son to smallpox. Here’s his sobering advice for parents worried about vaccines today.

Two dozen babies and toddlers sent home from California day care after infant diagnosed with measles

Two helpful resources for understanding measles and vaccinations