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To Inoculate or Not: The History of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

Antivaccination movements have a long and controversial history, especially in the United States.

Antivaccination movements have a long and controversial history, especially in the United States.

How the Anti-Vaxxer Movement Began

For a brief moment in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. Andrew Wakefield became a hero. In a time when diagnoses of conditions within the autism spectrum spiked for children, his supposed revelation that he found a cause for it gave many parents around the world hope.

According to Wakefield, his 1998 research revealed the culprit as the MMR vaccine (Measles, Mumps, Rubella), a common vaccine used to inoculate children from contracting several potentially deadly diseases. He pinpointed thimerosal, the mercury-based preservative in the vaccines, as being the likely cause.

Suddenly, a growing number of people (in particular, parents of autistic children) in the United States and Europe began to view the MMR vaccine—a drug credited for nearly eradicating the threat of measles—as a pariah. A new anti-vaccination movement started as parents refused to inoculate their children.

The era of the doctor’s “good deed” didn’t last long. Further research by the doctor’s peers debunked it; the preeminent British medical journal, Lancet, retracted the research article and denounced it as fraudulent; and England’s General Medicine Counsel stripped Wakefield of his license to practice medicine. The downfall was swift.

This should’ve ended the Antivaxxer Movement, as it came to be known. This turned out to be deadly wrong.

The reason for this centered on several factors:

  • The original study was shoddy and misleading.
  • It used a small, uncontrolled group (12), that relied on parental recall rather than measured observation.
  • Some participants had not been officially diagnosed with autism;
  • Some data were altered to fit Wakefield’s “findings.”
  • He used the study to promote an alternative MMR vaccine (which he attempted to patent).
  • The study couldn’t be replicated, despite being done numerous times over a 10-year span.

This should’ve ended the Antivaxxer Movement, as it came to be known. This turned out to be deadly wrong. In the age of the Internet—and the deluge of information— nothing dies easily.

In addition, other factors emboldened the movement’s growth. It included:

  • The erosion of public trust in pharmaceutical companies
  • The rise of anti-science and anti-government sentiments
  • The historically never-ending distrust of vaccines

As a result, measles is making a huge comeback in less than 20 years after medical officials announced this controlled disease was eradicated.

How did things get to this point? History offers some clues. This wasn’t the first anti-vaccination movement, nor will it be the last. However, the state of politics, misinformation, public distrust, and the influence of celebrities may make this movement a permanent fixture on the political landscape. On top of that, these factors have made this particular movement the most damaging . . . and contagiously deadly.

To Inoculate or Not

Thefirst recorded inoculation occurred in China in 10BCE. The procedure against smallpox was risky. It required an injection of smallpox into the skin to allow the immune system to fight it and make the patient immune to it in the future; that is, if the patient survived. The idea endured and, ironically, it became the misguided basis for an alternative to vaccines by today’s Antivaxxers.

The first case of an anti-vaccination movement—or a ban on vaccination to be precise—came much later in France in 1763. An Italian doctor introduced inoculation to France; however, the procedure had a major flaw. The doctors failed to properly quarantine inoculated patients from other patients, thus ensuring an outbreak.

Understandably, the majority of the population in Europe, as well as France, distrusted medical practices and technologies of the time. In some cases, the treatment was more deadly than the disease.

The flawed inoculation procedure didn’t help matters. As a result, the French Parliament immediately banned further inoculations in Paris, until safer measures were taken. The ban didn’t last, however. After a smallpox outbreak among European children developed, the inoculations continued without any further interruptions.


England Grapples With an Influential Anti-Vaccination Movement

France wasn’t alone. England had its ups and down with inoculations and several anti-vaccination movements. The first recorded event appeared between 1796 and 1798. During that time, Edward Jenner created a smallpox vaccine from cowpox. The innovation, however, was met with suspicion for the same reason that happened in France. In addition, the public had issues with sanitation (possibly a result of frequent cholera outbreaks in London and other major cities).

The clergy took sides, too. Some members condemned it. Others proclaimed that God purposely allowed the smallpox outbreak to happen in order to punish sinners.

Several decades later, English Parliament passed the Vaccination Act of 1853, which ordered mandatory vaccination for infants up to three months old and imposed penalties on parents that didn’t adhere to the rules.

In many respects, the Anti-Vaccination League became the precursor to the Antivaxxer Movement.

That same year, the Anti-Vaccination League emerged and fought the Act. Eventually, they forced Parliament to revamp the law in 1898. The updated version took out the violations imposed for refusing to vaccinate. It didn’t stop there; some league members (such as William Tebb) went abroad to the United States and influenced an anti-vaccination movement that would challenge various state vaccination ordinances. In many cases, they succeeded.

In many respects, the Anti-Vaccination League became the precursor to the Antivaxxer Movement. Their ability to organize and foment effective tactics that affected government and social policies set the stage for what would happen more than a century later.

From the 20th Century and Beyond

The new century saw a spike in innovations in the medical field. This included vaccines and the process of inoculations. Still, this didn’t stop the rise of various anti-vaccination movements throughout the United States and Europe. On top of that, the movements contrasted with the previous ones.

The anti-vaccination movements before the 20th century were justified in several cases. The medical procedures were hazardous at times and caused more harm than good. However, as the medicines and procedures became more sophisticated, concerns about their safety soon waned.

The exception was the 1955 Cutter Incident in Berkeley, California, in which polio vaccines were accidentally laced with live polioviruses. This error led to a sudden spike in diagnosis (40,000), paralysis (53), and deaths (5) from polio. This incident, however, proved to be an outlier.

Anti Vaxxer Vaccine published March 1, 2019 in

Anti Vaxxer Vaccine published March 1, 2019 in

Anti-vaccination movements continued throughout the 20th century. The results varied. In some cases, they had tragic results.

Here are some of the following highlights (or lowlights) of this era:

  • In 1902, one man refused a state mandate for vaccination after a smallpox outbreak in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1905 and lost. The court ruled that a state could issue mandates in accordance with an outbreak of a commutable disease.
  • In 1926 in the town of Georgetown, Delaware, an angry mob forced health officials—that arrived to implement a state-mandated inoculation for smallpox—to flee the town.
  • In 1974, a report that stated that 36 children in England developed neurological conditions led to concerns about the safety of the DTP vaccine (Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (whooping cough)). As a result, vaccination in the UK fell from 81% to 31% and led to three whooping cough epidemics.
  • Between 1979 and 1996, Sweden halted inoculations for whooping cough. The result: 60% of all Swedish children under the age of 10 contracted the disease.

The Antivaxxers

A new and dark era began when the Antivaxxer movement arrived. Unlike other movements, this one was nefarious to its core. As mentioned, it started its existence based on a hoax.

The late '90s saw a rise in the diagnosis of children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism is a developmental disorder that has a range of moderate to severe effects on children, including delays in fine motor skills, social skills, speech, and sensory functions. The most severe cases can lead to extremely debilitating conditions.

The Wakefield experiment started the movement; however, advocacy groups, the Internet, and celebrities perpetuated its growth. Unfortunately, the movement started to veer away from the fear of autism and began to move into other modes and purposes.

Distrust of Big Pharma

In an article from, writer Stewart Lyman described how the faltering reputations of pharmaceutical companies (often called Big Pharma) played a crucial role in the people’s mistrust of their products, as well as in vaccinations.

Succinctly, he wrote that Big Pharma “engaged in bad behavior” over the last two decades. He gave a lengthy cause for this. The list below is only part of the infractions that Lyman wrote in his article. He noted that Big Pharma initiated the following:

  • Major price hikes for older drugs
  • Purposely shorting supplies of critical cancer drugs to boost prices
  • Faking data on cancer drugs
  • Bribing doctors to prescribe opioids, thus fueling the current opioids crisis
  • Data falsification
  • Deceptive marketing
  • Medicare fraud
  • Failing to warn about serious drug risks and/or side effects
  • Sketchy business practices and accounting meant to boost sales figure

Lyman—who stated he actually supported inoculations/vaccinations—mentioned that an underlining problem was the abuse of power. In addition, companies seeking political favors exacerbated the problem. Big Pharma was pursuing favors from President Trump’s administration by hiring his personal attorney to chair important positions within their organizations.

Public exposure—and shaming—should have quelled the effects of the false vaccine-autism link. However, the news didn’t reach everyone.

The corruption and the real harm it caused may well have played a huge part in the Antivaxxer Movement.

In many respect, it may appear to justify the Antivaxxer’s aversion to vaccination. But, vaccination was around a lot longer than these companies, and it doesn’t come close to exonerating them from their beliefs and actions.

Measles Party and the Danger of Ignorance

Public exposure—and shaming—should have quelled the effects of the false vaccine-autism link. However, the news didn’t reach everyone. Many Antivaxxers held passionately to the idea that vaccines were causing developmental disorders such as autism despite the mounting evidence to the contrary.

Disturbingly, many parents passed on this falsehood to their children. On top of that, many of them put their children in harm’s way, purposely. This attitude led to the rise of measles parties.

Measles parties are not a new concept. Many parents practiced it as early as the 1960s. The idea behind it was to throw a party for a child with measles and have healthy children attend it so they can catch it. Many expressed their belief that exposure to measles would strengthen the healthy children’s immune system and make them invulnerable to future outbreaks (In fact, one such person to express this was Darla Shine, the wife of a top Trump official, Bill Shine. She expressed this view in early 2019).

Unfortunately, these parents tragically misunderstood how inoculation worked. All this did was expand the measles outbreak to its highest point in decades.

Still, many parents bought into it. After all, if celebrities and politicians support measles parties, what’s the harm in trying?

Celebrities Endorsement of the Worst Kind

Today, several prominent people support the Antivaxxer movement. In some cases, they’ve become the driving force by creating advocacy and lobbying groups. Over the years, the movement became more sophisticated and powerful. The organizations behind the movement have slowly emerged from the fringe to garner some mainstream support.

People like actress, comedian and former Playboy Centerfold Jenny McCarthy come to mind. She was one of the first to attach her name and cause to the Antivaxxer Movement. She believed the vaccines caused her son to become autistic (although she later claimed he was “cured” of it through the controversial Chelation therapy, thus throwing major doubt into the original claims it was autism).

Eventually, by 2007, McCarthy became the face of the Antivaxxer Movement by being a spokesperson for several advocacy groups such as Generation Rescue, DAM! (Defeat Autism Now!), and Talk About Curing Autism (TACA).


Soon, other celebrities joined the movement. Her former boyfriend, actor and comedian Jim Carrey briefly joined. Comedian Bill Maher questioned the safety of the vaccine (although he was never part of any group championed by McCarthy).

Even politicians on both sides of the political spectrum joined. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a former legislator and son of the late Presidential hopeful, Robert F. Kennedy, became a strong advocate.

On the other side, President Trump, then a candidate, expressed support for the Antivaxxer Movement (in fact, of the four finalists to run for the 2016 presidential election, only one, Hillary Clinton, opposed the Antivaxxer Movement). In a rare move, however, Trump later insisted that parents should inoculate their children after news of the current measles outbreak became critical. Whether this is a sign that the former president changed his view is hard to say.

McCarthy gets a lot of deserved flak for advocating for the Antivaxxers; however, it’s more worrisome that the country’s top policymakers and leaders support this dangerous movement. Also, current trends may play a crucial role in the rise of the Antivaxxer Movement. And this one is possibly the most troubling.

Is the Movement a Result of Anti-Government and Anti-Science Views?

Two beliefs appear to be on the rise, lately. In an interview on the show Penn and Teller’s Bullsh*t, Antivaxxers claimed that they had turned away from traditional medicine, embraced alternative, homeopathic medicine. Most surprising, however, was one person’s rant claiming that the vaccination was the government’s way to control the population and that the scientists behind vaccination were in on it.

It’s definitely conspiracy theory territory! However, with the Internet (something many Antivaxxer have exclusively used to do their “research”) the disinformation permeating from this source can be overwhelming. It can lead to many adopting radical views, especially on the supposed dangers of vaccines.

Good Intentions Gone Bad

The most troubling aspect of the Antivaxxer Movement may not come from celebrities or sham science. Instead, it may come from groups that advocate for a good cause. As mentioned, McCarthy built her activist credential by becoming a spokesperson for several organizations dedicated to autism awareness and cure. She advocated for two such organizations; however, there are many more.

Despite the exposure of Wakefield’s hoax, several groups promoting the Autism-vaccine link are still going strong. And, many of them have become leading voices in autism awareness. Additionally, these groups have become more powerful and sophisticated than they were when they started in the late '90s. Their activities include powerful lobbying programs on the state and national levels.

Softening the Vitriol

A sign that the Antivaxxer Movements’ sophistication is the recent attempt to change the vernaculars and rhetoric of their mission. During a hearing before the California State Senate in 2019, actress Jessica Biel, Justin Timberlake, and former politician Robert Kennedy Jr. voiced their opposition to a proposed mandatory vaccination bill. Although Antivaxxers were opposed to this bill, many didn’t directly come out to say it.

One example comes after the hearing. Biel took to social media and wrote: “ I’m not against vaccinations—I support children getting vaccinations, and I also support families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians.”

She continued to state:

“My dearest friends have a child with medical conditions that warrants an exemption from vaccinations, and should this bill pass, it would greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state. That’s why I spoke to legislators and argued against this bill. Not because I don’t believe in vaccinations, but because I believe in giving doctors and the families they treat the ability to decide what’s best for their patients and the ability to provide that treatment.”

The tactics of the Antivaxxer movement have changed, most likely due to some of the heat they received in light of the recent measles outbreak.

The bill, SB 276 (that she erroneously referred to as SB 277) would do away with certain exemptions on inoculations. This includes exemptions based on religious beliefs.

The tactics of the Antivaxxers have changed, most likely due to some of the heat they received in light of the recent measles outbreak. Instead of calling for an all-out ban on certain vaccines, the Antivaxxer are appealing to people to have the ability to choose if they want to inoculate their children or themselves.

In many respects, the language used softens the vitriol that the Antivaxxers used in the last decade. Possibly, they are appealing to choice rather than going for an all-out assault. Of course, the choice they want parents to make is to not inoculate.

Some Hope

The bill in question, SB 276, is a sign that states are getting serious about the measles outbreak as well as the influences of the Antivaxxer movement. Those that support the bill have started an aggressive campaign to counter the Antivaxxer’s rhetoric. Also, the real danger of measles is enough to change many people’s opinions on the matter.

There are forces such as the corruption of Big Pharma that should make the public wary of medicine; however, the threat of a controllable disease such as measles should make the public more worried about public health. Some things shouldn’t be a choice; especially when that other factor concerns a contagious disease that can affect the health and well-being of everyone.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2019 Dean Traylor