We are not giving away secrets to say Thomas Jefferson was a peculiar man. His faults today are as well known as his virtues; both are ample. On the plus side of the ledger, he was the nearest thing to a Renaissance man to occupy the White House.
A century and a half later, at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, John F. Kennedy said, “This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone ... Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse and dance the minuet.”
He was also the first president to have a pet in the White House – Dick, a mockingbird who liked to sit on Jefferson’s shoulder as Jefferson worked at his desk. And it is of a piece with his intellect, and especially the scientific bent that he hoped the new country would inherit, that Jefferson was one of the earliest vaccinators in the New World.
First there was smallpox, which ravaged both worlds. Then there was Edward Jenner, an English physician, who discovered, in 1796, that a small bit of a similar virus found in cows could be inserted in humans to protect them from it. The procedure struck most people as bizarre. A satirical cartoon of the time shows small cows emerging from vaccinated patients; the words “vaccine” and “vaccination” were coined from the Latin root for cow, vacca.
Benjamin Waterhouse, a co-founder of the Harvard Medical School, learned of Jenner’s work and tested a cowpox vaccine on his family. It seemed to work. He wrote to President John Adams, who ignored him. So he wrote to Jefferson, the vice president, about the vaccine, and Jefferson was enthusiastic. He gave it to his neighbors, which is partly how vaccines came to America.
Some would say the story culminated two decades ago, when measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. “Yet in the first five months of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 1,000 cases – more than occurred from 2000 to 2010,” Peter Beinart writes in the August issue of The Atlantic magazine.
“The straightforward explanation for measles’ return is that fewer Americans are receiving vaccines.”
Democrats in the Colorado Legislature sought to do something about that in the last session by making it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children, only to meet resistance from another Democrat, Gov. Jared Polis, who told The Hill, “When the government tries to force parents to do this, it creates distrust in both vaccinations and distrust in government.”
Colorado has a regrettably low vaccination rate among states. If we ask what is to be done when liberty and science collide, you would be right to ask how that is possible; it is like a conflict between watermelon and psychiatry. But it is all too easy to imagine the collision of liberty and public health. Polis is putting his finger on it.
We cannot say whether Jefferson, champion of liberty and science, would approve. No doubt he would have preferred that everyone would choose to be vaccinated. When he conducted his seminal cowpox vaccine trials, his first subjects were 14-year-old Ursula Granger, for whom it did not “take,” he recorded, and butler Burwell Colbert as well as blacksmith Joseph Fossett, who were the first to be successfully vaccinated by Jefferson – a great achievement for science and public health. But they were all his slaves.