Dec 172009

A recent article that appeared in Martin Gardner’s column Notes of a Fringe Watcher reminded me of an incident that occurred to me when I was in high school. This is a comment of mine that originally appeared on Metafilter.

I used to watch the national evening news on TV with my father virtually every night from about 1968 until about 1981, when I moved into the dorms. I remember watching the evening news broadcast somewhere in the late 1970’s which reported that the WHO had announced the eradication of smallpox.

The news in and of itself was mind blowing to me, even as a high school kid, as I had no idea that an eradication program was even in effect. I knew enough about the history of epidemic disease to know that this was an absolute milestone in human history, the epidemiological equivalent of putting a man on the moon.

But then my father dropped an even more profound bombshell on me, rather casually in fact. “I had smallpox.”

This was astounding, as even then I knew that Jenner had come out with his vaccine in the late 1700’s. By the time my father was a child, the smallpox vaccine was commonly available. The fact that my father survived smallpox, growing up in Butte Montana in the 1930’s, amazed me further still. He showed no scarring that was visible.

“Why weren’t you vaccinated?” was all I could think of to ask.

“My parents didn’t believe in it.” I still couldn’t understand, as I suddenly started having to make a bunch of inferences. My father is an emotionally private person, and many things I’m very curious about I just don’t ask about. He’s Irish, so I had to assume his parents were either Catholic if religious, or atheist. My father is an atheist. As far as I know, the Catholic Church has never opposed vaccination, though they are, of course, saddled with a boat-load of other irrationalities…

So all I could gather from my father was that my paternal grandparents opposed vaccination on some sort of nebulous anti-government, anti-medical establishment, anti-something-or-other irrational reason.

So when I hear about people who oppose vaccination all I can think of is “Yeah, my father contracted smallpox because of people like you…”

 Posted by on 12/17/2009 Growing Up In Montana

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