Thomas Jefferson conducted smallpox vaccine experiments

During February of this year Smithsonian magazine published a fascinating article describing the events surrounding not only England’s development of the smallpox vaccine but how it came to America. Upon English doctor Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine, Harvard professor Benjamin Waterhouse (who was able to vaccinate his family) sought to disseminate the small pox vaccine and enlisted the help of a novice scientist from Virginia named Thomas Jefferson.

Prior to the small pox vaccine being distributed in Virginia, the article points out, Thomas Jefferson first subjected himself, his family and some of his slaves to the original inoculation. The new one was tested on three other of Jefferson’s slaves. By August of 1800 hundreds of other Jefferson’s family and neighbors had been inoculated and the results showed the immunized population was able to resist the small pox virus. Jefferson is quoted as saying:

Given the general quackery of most medical science during this period, the vaccine trials would have been an astonishing achievement for a full-time doctor,” and Jefferson was “only moonlighting.”

Soon after the success in Virginia, the small pox vaccine was distributed elsewhere. Smithsonian also cites The New York Times that points out Jefferson also found an eloquent fellow advocate in his friend Benjamin Franklin too. Apparently, both men had to debate and overcome objections by people opposed to vaccinations during their time as well. To Franklin, the cause of vaccination became personal as he lost one of his sons to small pox.

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation.

It wouldn’t be Independence Day without recognizing the man whom authored the world famous document that helped make it happen. Thomas Jefferson was not only the author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States but was also a man of the Enlightenment and Renaissance. He was a man who was not just a politician, but an author, philosopher and scientist. President John F. Kennedy remarked while hosting a dinner for Nobel Prize winners at the White House:

This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.

With the outrage over California’s new law mandating vaccinations for children who attend state schools and the anti-vaccine movement still propagandizing against immunizations, we should commemorate Thomas Jefferson, not just because he helped bringing vaccines to the US, but because he best represents the philosophy he subscribed to which is the individual to live under freedom.

The United States’ founding ideals are grounded in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. Thanks to his efforts, Thomas Jefferson contributed not only to saving the lives of millions but (through his life and work) assisted in furthering the sciences. The United States is the greatest, moral country in human history. No nation on Earth is built on the idea that each individual is free to use their mind to the best of their abilities in order to achieve happiness and prosperity.

Happy Independence Day!