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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39


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It is often said that a discovery so momentous as that of Dr. Jenner, affecting every household in its most sacred relations of parent and child, creating, as it does, the most intolerant anxiety to use compulsion, and thus utterly destructive of all respect for the right of private judgment, could not by any possibility have obtained general belief until it had passed the ordeal of stringent inquiry and positive proof.

Little do such reasoners understand the motives which sway the popular mind, or the exaggerated hopes and fears in which superstitions take their rise; and little do they comprehend or admit the infinitesimal difference between to-day and a century ago, in the logical acumen and mental activity of the leaders of society and of fashion. Had Dr. Jenner's famous discovery been delayed till the present day, inquiry and sarcasm, in certain narrow circles, would doubtless have been trenchant and severe. But did not Jenner himself bitterly complain of the opposition of his medical compeers; of their determined refusal to confer the much-coveted degree of the London College of Physicians, unless he consented to undergo the usual and not very difficult examination; and of the ungracious reception of the cow-pox by the medical world, as compared with the bright and glowing enthusiasm of lords and ladies, the simple faith of philanthropists and theologians, and the involuntary admiration of wondering country squires?

It must in candour be admitted that the public of our day, though critical, is eminently superficial; it has no time to spare from its amusements, it has had a surfeit of discoveries, and it is content to accept with credulity and adhere with pertinacity to the sentiments and dogmas instilled in the nursery, and completed, confirmed, and established in the school. For the beliefs of our youth, growing with our growth like a cherished tree which our forefathers planted, gradually and insensibly wind into our affections, and imbue us with the feeling of our own superiority; and our anger at the woodman who ventures to strike at the root of the leafy monarch of the pasture, is parallelled by our anger at the logician who strikes at the root of our infantile superstitions and schoolboy science.

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When we survey the diversified grades of society which surround us, we cannot avoid observing that untold thousands still patronise the advertised cures for almost every form of bodily affliction; and when we search the files of a former century, we find a multitude of advertised protectives against almost every variety of human ill. Of this state of things Vaccination is a survival; and in place of medical protectives against plague, ague, and a score of varying zymotics, the present generation reposes its hopes and fears on an imaginary royal road to security by the aid of calf or cow, against its outrageously-exaggerated fears of the beauty threatener which permanently endangers the careless and ignorant breakers of every sanitary law.

It was not the publicity, but the secrecy, of the manifold mixtures and practices, curative and protective, that fascinated and overawed the general public in the protection era. Even now the purchasers of pills and draughts, patent or otherwise, embrace and engulph them in faith and hope, without the slightest knowledge of their constituent ingredients. Medicine has always required, and has always obtained, a much greater amount of uninquiring submission than theology. Sutton, a famous inoculator of the last century, amassed a large fortune by a method which was avowedly secret; and the amazing sums paid to Dimsdale, Maitland, and others, for operating upon princes, were assuredly not given for the common routine easy of accomplishment by the certificated members of the profession. And when did Jenner disclose his secret? The constitution of vaccine lymph is a mystery even now. Whether it be a suppositious disease in the cow, or a transmuted or transubstantiated small-pox; or whether it be, as many anti-vaccinators assume, a mingled result of varied zymotics, are questions still sub judice.

When Jenner's Memoirs were published in 1838, we learnt to our surprise, that in 1817 he had already supplied The National Vaccine Establishment with horse-pox; and we were told in Jenner's own words, that the horse's diseased heel "contained the true and life-preserving fluid." This horse-virus, says Jenner's biographer, was extensively used in England and in Scotland. We need not wonder then, that the vaccine dogma, in all the stages of its developement and growth, has constantly been discountenanced by the few thoughtful and independent minds, in a profession peculiarly under the influence of aristocratic whims and courtly exigencies; and the following pages will display the continuity of the opposition of the really scientific portion of the medical confraternity to the infallible empiricism which the fashionable circles of the gay world have so persistently and pertinaciously sought to thrust upon them.