Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Smallpox, Science, and Silliness

We've lived with, and died from, smallpox for a dozen millennia. Egypt's Ramses V, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and millions whose names are not remembered, suffered from the disease.

Smallpox wasn't an entirely fatal disease. About two of every three who caught the worst sort didn't die: but were scarred for life.

One of the few advantages to surviving smallpox was that it didn't strike the same person twice. Somewhere along the line, folks also noticed that the disease wasn't as severe for those who caught it from a contaminated break in the skin.

That practical observation led to variolation, deliberately infecting someone so that their bout with smallpox was more survivable, which reduced the smallpox death toll. It was an early step on the road to contemporary medicine.

I don't recall anyone objecting when the United Nations declared that smallpox was extinct on May 8, 1980. But in the "good old days" when folks like Edward Jenner were developing inoculations against smallpox, it was a different story.

Beware the Tiny Cows!

(From James Gillray, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
"The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!"
(James Gillray's warning against the perils of preventing smallpox. (1802))

Concern over new medical technology is nothing new.

For example, in 1802 James Gillray warned the British public against a controversial medical technology: inoculation. Meanwhile, the London Fever Hospital opened, "to the great horror of the neighbours." It was the first voluntary fever hospital, and that's another topic.

James Gillray may have realized that using cowpox inoculations to prevent smallpox wouldn't really make little tiny cows burst from the nose, face, and assorted other embarrassing spots.

Then again, maybe he did. Let's take a closer look at Mr. Gillray's illustration.

(From James Gillray, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Detail of James Gillray's "The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!")

Mr. Gillray's illustration includes a picture on the wall that looks a bit like Nicolas Poussin's The Adoration of the Golden Calf.

The golden calf incident happened after Moses had presented the Decalog, which included a rule about carving idols, and a list of more detailed rules. (Exodus 20:4)

When Moses delivered the Decalog and rules, "the people ... answered with one voice:"
"When Moses came to the people and related all the words and ordinances of the LORD, they all answered with one voice, 'We will do everything that the LORD has told us.' "
(Exodus 24:3)
Not long after, some of them apparently changed their minds. (Exodus 32:1-35)

I know about statues and crucifixes, by the way; believe that idolatry is a bad idea; and that's yet another topic. Topics. (May 17, 2013; July 15, 2012)

Fear and Weirdness, 1722

(From Henry Baker, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Henry Baker's 1756 drawing of microscopes owned by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.)

Anton van Leeuwenhoek saw microorganisms in his microscope in the 1670s, but it wasn't until early 1800s that Agostino Bassi linked Leuwenhoek's 'worms' with disease. We'd discovered that variolation, a now-obsolete method of inoculation, often prevented disease: but hadn't a clue why or how.

Scientists worked the bugs out of the germ theory of disease later in the 19th century.

Until then, with no solid theoretical foundation, and anything but consistent application of treatments, rational skepticism about inoculation made sense. Experimental medicine is — experimental: although I think it can be a good idea, and that common sense and ethics apply. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2292-2295)

(From Peter Pelham, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Cotton Mather, American Puritan clergyman and vaccination supporter.)

While folks like Leeuwenhoek were laying the foundations of today's medical science, some preachers were saying that God makes sinners sick: or uses the threat of deadly disease to bludgeon us into righteousness.

Weaving a tale of noble scientists struggling against ignorant preachers and their superstitious stooges might make a ripping tale. Real life isn't that simple.

In 1721, Puritan minister Cotton Mather urged doctors to try inoculating against smallpox. Dr. Zabdiel Boylston was the only one who didn't refuse. A protester threw a bomb through Mather's window, but more folks got inoculated anyway.

In 1722, English minister Edmund Massey taught that inoculation was sinful because God frightened folks into virtue. I'm not making this up:
"...The fear of disease is a happy restraint to men. If men were more healthy, 'tis a great chance they would be less righteous. Let the Atheist and the Scoffer inoculate. Their hope is in and for only this life. Let us bless God for the Afflictions He sends upon us, and grant us patience under them...."
("Against the Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation," Edmund Massey (1722))

Preachers, Priests, and the Pope, 1814

(From Britannica Kids, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Louis Pasteur, Catholic and scientist.)

Edward Jenner's vaccination experiments triggered strong reactions, sensible and otherwise:
"Smallpox is a visitation from God; but the cowpox is produced by presumptuous man; the former was what Heaven ordained, the latter is, perhaps, a daring violation our of holy religion."
(A physician's reaction to Dr. Edward Jenner's experiments in developing a vaccine for smallpox, (1796) via Psychological Sciences, Vanderbilt University)

"...In contrast, many village priests in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and England not only urged parishioners to seek the preventative treatment, they became wholesale vaccinators themselves. Pastors in Bohemia charged parents with responsibility 'before God for neglecting the vaccination of their children.' In 1814, the Pope himself endorsed vaccination as 'a precious discovery which ought to be a new motive for human gratitude to Omnipotence.'..."
("Deliberate extinction: Whether to Destroy the Last Smallpox Virus," pp. 19-20, David A. Koplow, Georgetown University Law Center (2004))
That would have been Pius VII, the 251st pope, who said vaccination was "a precious discovery which ought to be a new motive for human gratitude to Omnipotence."

A generation later, Louis Pasteur, a Catholic layman and scientist, helped prove that microorganisms cause at least some diseases. Developing germ theory was anything but a one-man show, though, and that's yet again another topic.

I suspect that persistent claims that he wasn't really Catholic stem partly from his belief that "mixing science and religion" was a bad idea. ("Louis Pasteur," Faith and spirituality, Wikipedia)

If by "mixing science and religion," Pasteur meant ignoring results that don't support notions we inherited from ancient Mesopotamian myth and folklore: I agree. (January 3, 2014)

Faith, Science, and Getting a Grip

It might be easier to either decide that all new ideas are the work of Satan, or that any criticism of new ideas is inspired by superstitious fear.

That wouldn't make sense, though.

Since I'm a Catholic, I don't have to pretend that ancient Mesopotamians knew more than NASA. I'm also encouraged to use my brain. (Catechism, 1778)

I'm also expected to believe what the Church says about God and humanity. Happily, the Catholic Church and the Non Sequitur's Church of Danae have very little in common.

Truth is important. (Catechism, 2464-2503)

Lying is wrong. (Catechism, 2482-2486)

So far, many folks might agree with what the Church says. The next few points may be controversial.

Human beings are animals, and people. We are made in the image and likeness of God: each of us is an "animal endowed with reason," who can control his or her own actions. (Catechism, 1700, 1730, 1951)

Sin can involve the body, but the body is basically good. (Genesis 1:27, 31; Catechism, 362-368, 2515-2516)

Except for humans, animals aren't people. They are for our use, not the other way around: but we can't 'do anything we want' with animals, because they belong to God. (Catechism, 2415-2416, 2418)

I don't expect God to shield me from illness: but whether I let illness drive me to despair, or not, is up to me. Being healthy is a good thing, and so is taking reasonable steps in staying healthy. We also recognize a charism of healing. (Catechism, 1264, 1500-1525, 2275, 2288-2296)

Medical and psychological research is a good thing, too: but like anything else we do, ethics are vital. (Catechism, 2292-2296)

Organ transplants are okay in many cases, and organ donation after death is a good idea. We're not allowed to break one person down for parts for another's benefit, though. Ethics again. (Catechism, 2296)

We should trust God, because the Almighty is in control, knows and provides for our needs, and deserves our trust. (Matthew 6:31-33; Catechism, 303-305)

The end does not justify the means. Ever. (Catechism, 1759)

After centuries of warnings about the "sinful practice of inoculation," it's small wonder that some folks see any "religious" objection to scientific research as nonsense. Dire warnings against Satanic rock music didn't help, and that's another topic.

I'll be back Friday, with my take on a human-pig hybrid, and why I do not think Tokyo will be ravaged by a giant mutant safflower.

Related posts:


Brigid said...

Missing word: "Mr. Gillray's illustration includes a picture on the wall looks a bit like Nicolas Poussin's The Adoration of the Golden Calf."

Missing something? "When Moses the Decalog and rules"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Right. Found and fixed.

I nearly "corrected" the one item to "Moses the Decalog delivered:" words in another place I am apt to put, yes?

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