Today’s contentious vaccine debate pales in comparison to the broad international struggle over state-mandated vaccination that took place at the turn of the 20th century. In this public lecture, historian Michael Willrich examines the American controversy over the “vaccination question.” As epidemic smallpox spread across the United States between 1898 and 1903, killing thousands, conflict erupted between government health officials and the public. Championing “medical liberty” and constitutional rights, critics of compulsory vaccination mounted a powerful critique of “state medicine” and the largely unregulated vaccine industry. The controversy led to important reforms in the nascent field of public health, and it prompted American courts to establish a standards for balancing government authority and individual rights that continue to resonate today.
Michael Willrich is the Leff Families Professor of History at Brandeis University, where he directs the graduate program in history. Educated at Yale and the University of Chicago, his scholarship centers on the social, legal, and political history of the United States since the Civil War. He is especially interested in how ordinary Americans experienced, tangled with, and shaped the increasingly powerful interventionist state that emerged with the rise of a new urban-industrial society around the turn of the twentieth century. Willrich’s first book, CITY OF COURTS: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago, won the American Historical Association’s Dunning Prize (for the best book on any aspect of the history of the United States) and the American Society for Legal History’s Cromwell Prize. His most recent book, POX: An American History, won the Organization of American Historians’ Levine Prize for cultural history and the Welch Medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine, and the New Yorker named it one of the best nonfiction books of 2011. Willrich’s scholarship has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the American Council of Learned Societies. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, Washington City Paper, and Mother Jones.