Green Bay Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers made headlines last week for a talk show interview in which he dished out falsehoods and incorrect information about coronavirus vaccines, criticized the NFL’s restrictions on unvaccinated players and tried to explain his refusal to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. In doing so, Rodgers channeled another Wisconsin anti-vaccine voice who challenged the authorities promoting vaccination. Physician Matthew Joseph Rodermund became infamous for his dangerous efforts to disprove contagion theory and end smallpox vaccinations.
Indeed, anti-science beliefs have fueled anti-vaccine activism in the United States for more than a century. But there is also a critical difference between past and present. With the expansive media environment of the 21st century, the mainstream press is now more willing to cover anti-vaccine voices and less willing to criticize them outside the editorial pages. While Rodgers got battered by columnists and opinion personalities, news coverage simply reported what he said and some conservative media defended him. The danger is that this greater reach makes anti-vaccine messaging more likely to stick and puts people at risk.
An ophthalmologist and graduate of the Bennett Eclectic Medical College, Rodermund practiced in Appleton, Wis. Trained in a school opposed to the theories of orthodox medicine, he made his beliefs known in several books and articles, among them “Murderous Fads in the Practice of Medicine” (1900).
His best-known publication, however, was “Dr. Rodermund’s Experiment,” an article reprinted in “The Vaccination Superstition,” a collection with a subtitle that openly questioned, “Can Vaccination Produce Syphilis?” (1902). The volume’s authors claimed that vaccines spread disease and prescribed healthy living to prevent infections. They capitalized upon rare cases in which syphilis spread via person-to-person smallpox inoculations, as sometimes took place during the Civil War in response to outbreaks.
Rodermund conducted a simple experiment to try to prove that smallpox was not contagious. He rubbed himself with smallpox pus. He then, by his own admission, rubbed his “pus-covered hands over 37 faces,” including family members, patients and fellow card players at a local businessmen’s club. When this became known, the club expelled him, schools dismissed two of his children, a third offspring was booted from college, and local authorities quarantined him, with his home guarded by police officers.
Undaunted, Rodermund escaped confinement with the aid of an ally who secured horses to take them to Waupaca, some 40 miles away. The doctor then boarded a train to Chicago and continued to Terre Haute, Ind., reportedly to consult with Frank Blue, secretary of the National Anti-Vaccination Society. On his journey and while staying at a hotel under an assumed name, Rodermund exposed, he claimed, 5,000 others to smallpox. Captured in Milwaukee as he headed home, he struggled with officers sent to take him into custody before being taken to the local pest house, where people with infectious diseases were confined.
Newspapers regularly reported on local smallpox outbreaks and quarantines; this sensational incident reached a national audience. The New York Times printed brief accounts on Jan. 27 and 28, 1901. Midwestern papers gave it even more ink. Knowing the real danger that smallpox posed, journalists and editors made their condemnation of Rodermund strong and clear.
One paper called him “an audacious scalawag.” The Wausau Pilot said his actions would “warrant a community holding a lynching” and the Kenosha Telegraph-Courier suggested that “the people of the city of Appleton ought to try dunking Dr. Rodermund in the river just to test the theory that water at the proper density and degree of temperature does not discommode one nor interfere with respiration, even though the head is held under for some time.”
Crucially, rather than amplifying Rodermund’s theories, the media treated him as a threat to public health, and their criticisms reflected public sentiment. When, a year after his first experiment, his house burned down and his family fell ill with typhoid, a Minneapolis paper reported that some regarded it as a “visitation of an avenging fate.”
After his initial arrest, the doctor promised to sue the city of Appleton for false imprisonment, claiming he would prove in court that smallpox was not contagious. Later, he pledged to start a magazine, go on the lecture circuit and form a national organization of his own, but it is unclear whether he achieved any of these objectives. In what was perhaps an effort to remain in the spotlight, he declared that he would not only repeat his experiment of applying pus to his body, but he would also ingest it as well. According to some newspaper accounts, he kept that vow.
Despite capturing media attention for a time, the doctor’s reputation and his career spiraled downhill. While he continued to publish books and articles assailing medical theory and practice, the public condemnation of his work appeared to undermine his medical practice, and Rodermund seemed to have run into financial difficulties. A few years after his notorious “experiment,” he faced charges of grand larceny, and six years later, he was charged with arson after setting fire to his office.
Legal problems arising from his medical theories and practice followed. He appeared in court in Madison in 1914 for failing to report a contagious disease after having seen a 7-year-old girl with diphtheria. In 1917, he was arrested for what Baraboo Weekly News discretely called “a criminal operation on a young girl.” In affirming his conviction, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court acknowledged it was for performing an abortion.
In the end, neither Rodermund nor any of his fellow science skeptics disproved the concept of contagion. And ultimately, in the 1905 case “Jacobson v. Massachusetts,” the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of the state to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. Despite and because of his failures, Rodermund’s name lives on more than a century after his death. His name appears in histories of vaccine opposition, and on some obscure modern anti-vaccine advocates’ sites, which cite his efforts with approval.
But present-day anti-vaccination crusaders have far more extensive media platforms than Rodermund did and can reach a huge public. This reach has precipitated what is now called a “dangerous” infodemic. Today, few traditional media outlets attack vaccine skeptics outside the editorial pages as strongly as small-town newspapers did after learning of Rodermund’s activities.
Certainly, the transformations in science over the past 12 decades mean that contemporary vaccine opponents and medical skeptics operate in a vastly different environment than their predecessors. Even so, these vaccine critics are no less vehement in their objections, no less sure of their beliefs than Rodermund was in 1901 — and every bit as reliant on disproved claims and false information.
Thanks to the media practices of today, however, they have had far greater success in winning converts, even people like Rodgers with access to the best medical information and every incentive to get vaccinated. Rodgers admitted that he got medical advice from podcaster Joe Rogan, and he began taking an animal deworming medicine to treat his covid-19. That’s about as helpful and dangerous as getting smallpox advice from Rodermund in 1901.