The Meanings of Anti-vaccination in Edward Carpenter’s Anti-vivisection Writings

4 November 2021
By Mo O’Neill

Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was an essayist, poet and activist who lived on the border between Derbyshire and Sheffield. My thesis unpicks aspects of his extensive body of work which reach beyond the parameters of the human, including his animal rights advocacy and his broader vision of a multispecies, sexually liberated socialist utopia.

At present, I am working on a chapter exploring Carpenter’s anti-vivisection advocacy, a major area of his pro-animal thought. Within this research, I am also encountering many of Carpenter’s ideas on anti-vaccination. Carpenter’s critique of vaccination is mostly articulated across his anti-vivisection literature, reflecting the close relationship between the late Victorian anti-vivisection and anti-vaccination movements.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccination debate is currently a matter of pressing socio-political concern: but what did it mean to be opposed to vaccination in Carpenter’s historical moment of late Victorian political radicalism? What are the connections between Carpenter’s anti-vaccination and his opposition to vivisection and animal cruelty more broadly? This post is an attempt to tease out some initial answers to these questions.

Victorian anti-vaccination

Mirroring the current explosion of scepticism around the current vaccine rollout, anti-vaccination as an organised movement reached a zenith in the mid-late nineteenth century, signalling a clash of conflicting ideas about the body, the role of the government and law enforcement in public health matters, and relationships between the individual and society. But there are important historical distinctions between vaccination then and now.

One is that the controversy in the Victorian period related to legislation - introduced in 1853 and progressively tightened in 1867 and 1871- enforcing the compulsory vaccination of children. While this was a response to the growth of smallpox in the UK, as Nadja Durbach argues in her history of the Victorian anti-vaccination movement, this medico-legal intervention was viewed in many quarters as an unprecedented intrusion of the state into matters of the private body.[1]

Victorian vaccination was also more physically invasive, involving the vaccinator making several cuts into an infant’s arm before lymph was rubbed into the incisions. In ‘arm-to-arm’ vaccinations, the infant was returned to the vaccinator eight days after their own vaccination; if they met certain health requirements, lymph was extracted from their healing wounds to use on other children.[2]

As Durbach records, arm-to-arm vaccinations were more commonly used by public vaccinators, so this was the main form of vaccination for working-class families.[3] It was generally safer to use vaccinations made from lymph extracted from calves: until 1898, when calf lymph vaccinations were mandated by law, calf lymph was often the preserve of those who had access to private doctors.[4] While both types of vaccination held dangers of complication, arm-to-arm vaccinations were seen as causing incurable wounds and spreading diseases such as syphilis.[5]

The anti-vaccination movement highlighted the disproportionate impact of these side effects on the poor, as well as the significant, mounting penalties working-class dissenters could face by refusing the vaccine, including jail time and repossession of property if the fines could not be paid.[6]

Another significant distinction was the relative novelty of vaccination as a science, developed around the turn of the nineteenth century by physician Edward Jenner. As Durbach contends, the idea of making incisions in the body and sharing bodily fluids within the community was incommensurate with Victorian ideas about bodily integrity and blood purity.[7] A vaccine rollout could only be successful ‘insofar as it could be incorporated into an already available medical cosmology,’ so the legal compulsion to comply with a novel procedure which the public little understood was a source of alienation between pro-vaccinators and some members of the public.[8]

Recent work by Kristin E. Kondrlik has highlighted that in line with the professionalisation and institutionalisation of medicine in the nineteenth century, doctors and vaccinators debated whether they had a responsibility to educate the public about the vaccine rollout, and how this might be undertaken.[9] These ambiguities and matters of concern were exploited by the anti-vaccination movement, with agitation against compulsory vaccination mounting throughout the mid-to-late 1800s until a Royal Commission recommended the addition of a ‘conscientious objector’ clause to the Vaccination Acts, passed in 1898.

Carpenter and anti-vaccination

Carpenter participated in the anti-vaccination movement primarily by mentioning the topic in his antivivisection writing and keeping up with movement literature. His anti-vaccination views are clarified by considering his own broader critique of science. His first systematic expression of antipathy towards modern scientific practice is expressed in his 1889 essay collection Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure. As the name suggests, Carpenter takes aim at the trappings of late Victorian civilisation, and modern science is criticised at length. Here, Carpenter argues that scientific enquiry is predicated on a consensus to focus on interpreting particular phenomena in isolation from the whole of which they are a part.[10] This atomistic approach is anathema to the broader worldview he advances in the collection, emphasising the fundamental unity of nature and the inextricability of all phenomenal beings.

For Carpenter, the selective approach of science means it can never reach this holistic truth: in arguments which precede Thomas S. Kuhn’s work on scientific ‘paradigm shifts,’ Carpenter presents science as engendering perpetually shifting goalposts, as old theories are rejected and new areas of focus continually introduced.[11] He suggests that scientific theories ‘bear about the same relation to the actual world that a map does to the country it is supposed to represent’: while they are useful for navigating the world, claims that theories represent the ultimate truth are impossible and belied by science’s continual self-correction.[12]

As well as criticising the truth-claims involved in attempting to articulate ‘a permanently valid and purely intellectual representation of the universe,’ Carpenter argues that the scientific project of separating ‘the logical and intellectual part of man from the emotional and instinctive’ is necessarily abortive.[13] He argues that in abstracting from the emotional and experiential life into a claimed objective realm, science moves away from ‘the sense of personal relationship, the sense of duty, fitness in things,’ permitting the pursuit of cruelty and the separation of humans from the more-than-human world in which they are imbricated.[14]

For Carpenter, truth can only be found through an embodied recognition of this interconnection: he imagines a science informed by ‘the companionship of the animals and the trees and the stars, the knowledge of their habits at first hand and through individual relationship to them, the recognition of their voices and languages, and listening well what they themselves have to say.’[15] The inseparability of emotion from knowledge-formation permits Carpenter to emphasise the importance of lay knowledge in the face of a supposed closed-off scientific elite, bringing the socio-political factors, which he perceives science to have neglected, into his critiques.

This emphasis on the primacy of affective multispecies relationship also furnishes Carpenter’s fundamental rejection of using animals in the pursuit of scientific knowledge or utilitarian gain to humans. For Carpenter, vivisection is the ultimate manifestation of the problems of science, representing its atomisation of the integral being and the violation of human ethical responsibilities towards the nonhuman animal.

In ‘The Need of a Rational and Humane Science,’ a talk from 1895 incorporated into a later edition of Civilisation, Carpenter also depicts vaccination as an exemplification of the scientific ‘Method of Ignorance.’[16] Here, Carpenter questions medical claims about the efficacy of the smallpox vaccine, arguing that the statistics used by pro-vaccinators are more complex than they seem: among other things, not enough of the population has been vaccinated to have a reliable measure, not enough time has elapsed since vaccines were developed to get a longitudinal understanding of their effects, and other factors such as improvements in nursing and overall sanitation may explain dips in infection rates for vaccinated persons.[17] Carpenter argues that the vaccination lobby ignored such factors by uplifting selective, decontextualised statistics, and thus ‘simply limited themselves to one small aspect of the problem,’ exemplifying his critique of scientific selectivity.[18]  

Carpenter’s attitude towards vaccination in this essay is ambivalent: he concludes the section by clarifying, ‘I only wish to warn you how complex all these problems are, how impossible that notion of settling even one of them by a cut-and-dried intellectual formula.’[19] The rough notes Carpenter wrote in preparation for the essay indicate his opinion more informally: ‘Vn has good effects but also evil – too Complex / Must feel our way – a kind of tact.’[20] If Carpenter wished to complicate the narrative around vaccination by considering socio-political factors excluded from a purely intellectual formulation, this also involved advancing his own interpretation of the factors better placed to improve public health.

Carpenter’s vision of health is aligned with his broader worldview, emphasising holistic societal initiatives such as increased public sanitation, a nationalised water system, better treatment of the working poor, and the adoption of a vegetarian diet. This places Carpenter within the sanitationist camp of anti-vaccinators, who emphasised public hygiene as an alternative to specific medical interventions. Throughout his science critiques, Carpenter frames vaccination again and again as an exemplar of the unhelpfulness of a ‘palliative’ approach to medicine, attacking the symptoms and thus permitting the broader social problems underpinning ill-health to go unaddressed.[21]

Anti-vaccination and animals

Thus for Carpenter, the Victorian approach to health was driven by fear and desperation in the face of encroaching epidemics, leading to a symptomatic attempt to ‘ward them off by inoculations, vaccinations, vivisections, and so forth, without end.’[22] These approaches can never be fully effective because they take a partial view of a holistic issue. Vivisection is a particular object of contempt for Carpenter, because he sees this as the apex of the human’s ‘readiness to sacrifice the weaker and more dependent creatures for his own supposed gain.’[23]

Durbach highlights that anti-vaccination and anti-vivisection were closely interconnected movements. Figures like Carpenter participated in both movements, and connected the two in their critiques, in line with a broader opposition towards the violence and animal cruelty that they saw as characterising the developing medical profession. As Durbach notes, many saw vaccination as a form of vivisection, cutting into the flesh of babies: Carpenter himself advanced the perspective that vaccination was a form of human experimentation, and that vivisection and vaccination were slippery slopes leading to the possibility of human vivisections, targeted at the poor and vulnerable.[24][25]

Durbach notes that vegetarians could oppose calf lymph vaccinations on the grounds of animal cruelty.[26] She also highlights that anti-vaccination articulated anxieties about the sovereignty and permeability of the body, which were reflected in a rhetoric of species anxiety.[27] Families worried that calf-lymph vaccines would animalise their children or subject them to bovine diseases, and that vaccines in general would taint the body through external interference, creating a monstrous body subjected to rot and disease.[28] Such anxieties manifest in Carpenter’s conception of the healthy human as untainted and self-integral: he repeatedly returns to the absurdity of relying on animals for medical intervention, stressing that the conditions of health lie ‘in our own hands.’[29]

An 1894 newspaper op-ed on vivisection scoffs at the cultivation of germs in ‘countless myriads’ in nonhuman animals, to be ‘transferred to our bodies [emphasis in original].’[30] An 1893 anti-vivisection pamphlet stresses with regard to animal-lymph vaccinations that ‘the danger of such introductions of foreign matter into the body is extreme.’[31] For Carpenter, the ‘pure and holy relationship between man and the animals’ which such interventions violate is a humanist relationship of paternalistic companionship, within bodily limits that remain bounded and intact.[32]

Carpenter’s antivaccination is thus complexly related to his wider commitment to ethical relationship with the nonhuman animal. Carpenter’s critique of vaccination, and science more broadly, was predicated on critiquing scientific practice by asserting the necessity of ethical considerations within it; in this respect, his critique was prescient in underscoring the untenability of divorcing science and medicine from the broader socio-political context in which they are situated. Durbach’s research on Victorian vaccination, and today’s complex and polyvalent vaccination debate, certainly confirm that public health interventions do not take place within a historical and cultural vacuum, and that, as Carpenter suggests, ‘a kind of tact’ is needed.

Carpenter’s polemics do not always embrace such a tactful approach: many aspects of his critique are reminders of the dangerous aspects of contemporary anti-vaccination rhetoric. One pamphlet dwells on the spurious links between vaccination and cancer (though he later dampens down the strength of these claims in his manuscript edits for a reprint of the essay).[33] The same essay describes medical practice as ‘infidel’ [emphasis in original], painfully reflecting the unacceptable attacks on doctors and nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic.[34] Another article cites ‘rumours’ as a source for his speculations on human vivisections happening in the US.[35]

Carpenter also erred in his 127-year-old prediction that, in line with broader scientific paradigm shifts, vivisection would soon be antiquated and that humanity ‘will wonder that their forerunners could ever have been so foolish as to be led astray in this one.’[36] Vaccination continues to be an urgent intervention into epidemics and pandemics around the world, and animal welfare activists continue the fight for medical responses to such challenges which are not predicated on the suffering of other animals. There are no easy answers to these challenges, and while I am still exploring the implications of Carpenter’s anti-vaccination stance, perhaps there is some value in Carpenter’s suggestion that ‘we must feel our way.’

[1] Nadja Durbach, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), p.9.

[2] Durbach p.3.

[3] Durbach p.127.

[4] Durbach p.126.

[5] Durbach p.127.

[6] Durbach p.9.

[7] Durbach p.4.

[8] Durbach p.4.

[9] Kristin E. Kondrlik, ‘Conscientious Objection to Vaccination and the Failure to Solidify Professional Identity in Late Victorian Socio-Medical Journals’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 55.3 (2020), pp.338-371.

[10] Edward Carpenter, Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure, and Other Essays (New York: George Allen and Unwin, 1921), p.81.

[11] Civilisation p.87.

[12] Civilisation p.123.

[13] Civilisation p.121.

[14] Civilisation p.118.

[15] Civilisation p.133.

[16] Civilisation p.231.

[17] Civilisation pp.231-2.

[18] Civilisation p.232.

[19] Civilisation p.232.

[20] Sheffield, Sheffield Archives, Edward Carpenter Collection MSS 65. fol.7.

[21] Edward Carpenter and Edward Maitland, Vivisection (London: Reeves, 1893), p.8.

[22] Civilisation p.236.

[23] Carpenter and Maitland p.17.

[24] Durbach p.144.

[25] Edward Carpenter, ‘Vivisection’, The Clarion, 1 December 1894, p.8.

[26] Durbach p.123.

[27] See chapter ‘Vampires, Vivisectors and the Victorian Body’ in Durbach.

[28] Durbach p.125.

[29] Edward Carpenter, untitled letter to the editor, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 14 June 1899, p.7.

[30] Clarion p.8.

[31] Carpenter and Maitland p.9.

[32] Civilisation p.127.

[33] Carpenter and Maitland p.11.

[34] Carpenter and Maitland p.13.

[35] Clarion p.8.

[36] Carpenter and Maitland p.12.