The Pfeiffer Incident
Season’s Greetings, reader! I have not forgotten you; my real job for which I obtain actual remuneration has been busy as the semester drew to a close. If only I could follow the rainbow to the elusive Big Pharma Money Pot that is used to pay anyone and everyone with a pro-vaccination viewpoint, I might not have such fiscal concerns. Le sigh.
Anyway, I was doing some research for a paper I’m writing when I came across a delightful anecdote. It is entirely possible that my reader has already heard of the Pfeiffer Incident, but I had not and it is therefore the subject of today’s post.
I was reading a riveting journal article entitled, “The last smallpox epidemic in Boston and the vaccination controversy, 1901-1903” (1) in which Dr. Albert and colleagues describe the last great smallpox vaccination battle in the United States. In it, I discovered the tale of Dr. Immanuel Pfeiffer. Dr. Pfeiffer demonstrated a number of peculiar traits that are associated with the modern-day anti-vaccination movement, including the obvious one–a firm and confident belief that vaccines simply do not work. He supported the use of fasting and hypnotism instead (1), an approach amazingly consistent with the anti-vaccination rhetoric of today, which claims that diet and woo will form a forcefield of protection around a child to keep away the nasty germs that only icky dirty people will catch.
To his credit, Pfeiffer was willing to attempt some proof of principle. He reckoned that he could swan right through a smallpox hospital, unvaccinated, and emerge unscathed, and he finally received approval for his experiment (n=1) in 1902 (1). Certainly the granting of permission for the unvaccinated Pfeiffer to visit the Gallop’s Island smallpox hospital was far beyond an ethical lapse. Gallop’s Island was a quarantine facility in Boston Harbor (2), a region now more famous for overpriced hotels, fantastic accents, and tea parties than for pox parties. The very purpose of a quarantine is, obviously, to keep the ill separate from the healthy.
And now comes the schadenfreude. A Dr. Paul Carson apparently violated all ethical boundaries by suggesting that Pfeiffer “smell the breath” of some patient as he walked through Gallop’s Island. Following his visit, the Board of Health set up a tail on Pfeiffer, who returned to the nearby town of Bedford, and their efforts were rewarded four days post-pox-visit when Pfeiffer became ill with smallpox; while none of the vaccinated physicians did so (1). The New York Times trumpeted the finding in its February 9, 1902 edition (3), with an article entitled “EXPOSED TO SMALLPOX.; Boston Doctor Who Opposed Vaccination Now Has the Disease and Probably Will Die”. No whitewashing here, folks! Note that the Health Board did not bother to notify the residents of Bedford that they had sent Typhoid Immanuel into their community like a human bioweapon, leading to Bedford considering a lawsuit against Boston for the gross negligence of spreading an epidemic (1).
To me the biggest question regarding Pfeiffer was: how did he feel about vaccination after getting smallpox? And this is the crux of the issue that again ties old school anti-vaxxers with their latter-day counterparts. In a follow-up article published on March 10, 1902, Pfeiffer’s son declares that his father’s views on disease are “unchanged” (4). In an interview, the son states:
“Dr Pfeiffer is as strongly opposed as ever to vaccination. Nothing has happened to change my own views on the subject…I was vaccinated as a matter of form and in compliance with the desire of the local authorties. My vaccination did not take and I don’t think it was of any benefit. I have been with my father, personally attending him almost constantly since he became ill, and I can say positively that I have felt no ill effects from my close contact with him during his illness”
This entire statement is so very characteristic of the modern-day anti-vax movement that it almost takes my breath away. But it also goes to the point that no matter how tempting it may be to throw ethics to the wind and Pfeiffer someone over who doubts the efficacy of vaccination, the anti-vax movement remains unmoved by science or rationality, and they will Pfeiffer you up instead.
(2) Albert MR, et al. Smallpox Manifestations and Survival during the Boston Epidemic of 1901 to 1903. Ann Intern Med. 2002; 137: 993-1000.
(3) EXPOSED TO SMALLPOX.; Boston Doctor Who Opposed Vaccination Now Has the Disease and Probably Will Die. The New York Times, February 9, 1902. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10E11FA3E5412738DDDA00894DA405B828CF1D3
(4) DR. PFEIFFER RECOVERING.; Anti-Vaccinationist Convalescent After Smallpox, with His Views on the Disease Unchanged, The New York Times, March 10, 1902. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F00717FF395412738DDDA90994DB405B828CF1D3