On Immunity

Community care and historic responses

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Objective: Horrifying vaccination tools of the 19th century (Fig. 1, 2) and the hair of the man credited with inventing vaccination (Fig. 3)

Okay, I know this doesn’t really help people with a fear of needles, but I am eternally grateful that we don’t have to get vaccines using either of the tools in the images above. I am also grateful for the owner of that hair, Dr. Edward Jenner, because he is likely responsible for our survival. Countless friends, family members, and even myself would have long ago passed away without the incredible medical development that is vaccination!

Vaccination aside, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about zoonotic diseases for fun. I truly cannot explain why. I suppose it’s a mix of relief that there are solutions to even the most outrageous and horrifying problems. Zoonotic disease, for the most part, provides valuable insight into the need for climate futuring (and green new dealing, etc.), for health care for all, and for an acceptance that life on earth is incredibly chaotic. This needs to be a wake-up call for our collective future. 

When I came home to do a cautionary quarantine way over a month ago, I re-opened a book I’ve been reading for ages, “Spillover” by David Quammen and then a horrible and incredibly coincidental thing happened. I opened to the last page I had read, (pg. 207) and on page 208 (after discussing the SARS outbreak) Quammen wrote, “The much darker story remains to be told, probably not about this virus [SARS] but about another. When the Big One comes, we can guess, it will likely conform to the same perverse pattern, high infectivity preceding notable symptoms. That will help it to move through cities and airports like an angel of death.” Quammen is evidently a drama queen, but he and many other public health professionals predicted a virus-like COVID-19 over a decade ago. 

Since fears already have begun relating to (the currently nonexistent and hopefully soon developed) COVID-19 vaccine, I wanted to share some imagery and information about the original anti-vax campaigns of the 19th century.

To give some context, The scientist Edward Jenner is credited with the development of vaccination and, in turn, the eradication of smallpox. He discovered that inoculating patients with cowpox produced a milder and un-infectious reaction, which produced long term immunity (though revaccination was necessary). The process of eradication through vaccination took nearly 200 years to achieve.

However, this achievement faced a great deal of backlash. The Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League was established in 1874 and alongside the Vaccination Enquirer, they led opposition particularly to compulsory vaccination. Many critics saw it as a direct challenge to personal liberty. 

Regarding smallpox vaccination, as late as 1926 anti-vaccination pamphlets like The Quest warned, “Americans! Wake up before it’s too late! Get your eyes open to the enormous crime of compulsory vaccination.” Despite the proven efficacy and importance of vaccination (for things including HepB, yearly influenza, tetanus, and polio),  the debate goes on… Below are two illustrations from the very start of this dispute. 

  • In this 1802 etching by C. Williams, a cow-like monster is depicted being fed baskets of infants and then excreting them with horns. This illustration is meant to symbolize vaccination and its effects. 

  • Edward Jenner is depicted vaccinating patients against smallpox in this print from 1802. It was created by James Gillray for the publications of Ye Anti-vaccine Society. 

To swiftly change subjects, now is as good a time as any other to share some of my favorite examples of historical public health communication. These are part of an archive I’ve created for a book I’m working on, Cultures of Paranoia and Repair: Art History and Pandemic Disease.

  • In this public health poster/advertisement for Anios disinfectant, many people are shown using Anios to destroy cute, freaky little microbes meant to represent infectious disease. This color lithograph print was created by G. de Trye-Maison in 1910.  

  • This is a wonderfully illustrated poster about safe sex and AIDS Prevention created by Robert Lindvig in 1994 for the Landsforeningen Ungdomsringen. 

  • This print was created by the AIDS Council of New South Wales to share a warning to the lesbian community about sharing needles. 

  • These posters were both created between 1936 and 1939 as a part of the Works Progress Administration to inform the public about the risks of untreated syphilis. The left poster is by Erik Hans Krause and the right poster is by Charles Verschuuren. 

  • Here is an image of the Glasgow Corporation X-ray Campaign tram from 1957. Scotland had one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in Europe, so the tram was an effort to get as many people X-rayed as possible. I think this is a really interesting public health intervention. 

  • In the 1970s the Young Lords ran a mobile chest X-ray unit. Above is an image from that time. The Puerto Rican activist organization wanted to provide health care access to underserved communities, including East Harlem in New York City. Their TB initiative began in June 1970. The Black Panthers had a similar mission and opened free clinics to take direct action against health inequality. 

I hope you enjoyed, or at least learned, from that visual display of infectious disease history. Once again considering COVID-19, I feel enraged by the lack of preparations in the United States and elsewhere, about the issues in healthcare coverage, and about the inequalities and multitudes of disappointments this virus has accentuated and stressed. Many of the disparities and issues are not new ones, particularly in the context of infectious disease. As you can see in the images above, times like these have required people to really take action, believe in science, and consider care and safety through the lens of being humane and considerate. 

I have a few readings I recommend particularly relating to COVID-19 and what we should expect. Unfortunately, they are not wholly optimistic, but I think now is a time during which we have to learn how to adjust our lifestyles and plan for new, more just ones. I know the news is difficult to read right now, but I encourage everyone to not let feeling fearful stop them from remaining educated about the necessary protocols and expectations we should have. 


To read

  1. “Our Pandemic Summer” by Ed Kong in The Atlantic

  2. “The Coronavirus in America: The Year Ahead” by Donald G. McNeil Jr. for NYT

  3. “The Dangerous History of Immunoprivilege” by Kathryn Olivarius for NYT

  4. “A week in the life of a paramedic fighting the COVID-19 pandemic” from Time

  5. “Notes on Power in a Pandemic” by Roxane Gay on Medium

  6. On the importance of protecting the ecosystem, if not for the earth’s sake then for our own health, “The Ecology of Disease” by Jim Robbins for NYT

To listen

  1. Anicka Yi on nonhuman ecologies and embodied machines from the e-flux podcast (Thank you to my friend Mallika)

To watch

  1. On Netflix I really loved Shirkers and I hope everyone takes the time to see it. 

To learn

  1. Seminar from Washington University Exploring and Understanding the COVID-19 Pandemic

  2. Care in Uncertain Times Syllabus that Wen actually sent me

  3. Johns Hopkins Teach-Out with courses taken from their Epidemiology in Public Health Practice Specialization course

This week’s newsletter was curated by Raina Wellman. She can be reached at rainawellman@gmail.com or on Instagram @unnff.

If you’d like to create a letter, send an email of interest to jwenzhuang@gmail.com, or @wenevernever.