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Vaccine Fear: Current (and terribly unwise), but not new

Date: February 12th, 2019 in JABSOM News    Print or PDF

Dr. Robert Gaynes, Infectious Disease Specialist. Tina Shelton photo.

ByTina Shelton, JABSOM Communications Director

The measles crisis in the Pacific Northwest is current — but it is not new. Unwarranted fear of lifesaving vaccines has been around as long as vaccines have, we were reminded today in a lecture by Emory University professor and infectious disease specialist Dr. Robert Gaynes. Gaynes, this year’s speaker for the Hans and Ilza Veith Lecture in the History of Medicine, chose for his topic “The Germ Theory of Disease: Medicine’s Most Important Discovery.”

He reminded those in attendance that Edward Jenner, the creator of the world’s first vaccine (against smallpox) was not without harsh critics in his lifetime.

In 1798, Jenner self-published his findings that cowpox could shield humans from smallpox, one of the greatest perils of the age. Jenner had submitted his research a year earlier to the Royal Society only to have it rejected.

His discovery became one of the greatest contributions in the history of medicine. The vaccine. The word itself, Gaynes reminded us, was derived from the Latin words for cow and virus.

“You would think this (discovery).. would be met with great rejoicing and … in some places it was,” said Gaynes. “I found a letter from Thomas Jefferson,” he said, going on to read a portion:

“Medicine has never before produced any single improvement of such utility. You have erased from the calendar of human affliction one of its greatest. Yours is the comfortable reflection that mankind can never forget that you have lived,” wrote Thomas Jefferson.

An drawing showing a group of people one of whom appears to have a cow's snout instead of a nose
But, in his own country, Jenner came under attack. Anti-vaccinationists sprang up. Gaynes showed a figure which was published in The London Times, which he said showed that people believed that if you got this cow pox vaccine you would grow cow parts.

“What is going on in the United States with measles is something to pay attention to. But this whole idea of vaccine hesitancy is not new. Even Jenner had to deal with this,” said Dr. Gaynes.

But history shows Jefferson was right about Jenner. By the 1880’s smallpox virtually disappeared in England.

Dr. Gaynes at the lectern

About The Hans and Ilza Veith Annual Lectureship in the History of Medicine at JABSOM in Memory of Charles Judd, Jr.
Ilza Veith was born in Ludwigshafen, Germany in 1912 and attended medical schools in Geneva and Vienna, receiving her Ph.D. in the History of Medicine from Johns Hopkins University in 1947, the first such degree issued by the University. Ilza was an Associate Professor in History of Medicine at the University of Chicago 1949-63, Professor of History of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco 1964-79, and then Professor Emerita. During her tenure at the University of California at San Francisco, Dr. Veith shared her love for the history of medicine with three Hawaiʻi physicians: Dr. Charles S. Judd, Jr., Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell, and Dr. Yoshio Oda, all of whom later served as faculty at the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). Dr. Judd went on to earn a master’s degree in medical history in 1969-70 after studying with Dr. Veith, and they became life-long friends. She visited Hawaiʻi several times and made this bequest in memory of Charles Sheldon Judd, Jr., MD.

Ilza married Hans von Valentini Veith on October 20, 1935. They were married until his death on March 9, 1991. Ilza was the author of many books and articles on the history of medicine, including her major work of the translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine first published in 1949. Ilza received many honors over the years for her outstanding achievements in the history of medicine, including an honorary doctor of medicine degree from Juntendo University in Japan.

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