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Hilary's Desk

Bodily Matters

Hilary Butler - Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Bodily Matters” by Nadja Burbach.

First, a background to my review:

20 years ago, my then GP, whose thesis was on smallpox, expressed surprise that I could have accepted without investigation, the medical dogma which stated that the smallpox vaccine saved the world from much misery, and vanquished Smallpox. Like most people today, I’d absorbed the “stories” from school and thought no further about it. I asked to see his thesis. He refused, saying that something learned first hand is much more valuable.

Periodically over the next eight years I went through all the early issues of BMJ and Lancets, looking at the smallpox issues, including those surrounding the UK Royal Commission on smallpox vaccination. The medical journals kept a very tight rein and primarily published pro vaccine articles, and diatribes against their esteemed peers who had defected to the “dark side”. My frustration grew, as it became obvious that the many doctors who had become anti-vaccine were refused the right to publish their arguments in the medical journals of the 1800’s.

I looked far and wide for information privately published by these doctors. Very little was to be found in libraries in this country. With the assistance of many friends overseas, I then built up a considerable library, which includes some of the documents Burbach has used in her books.

After spent decades reading copious quantities of “heretical” material on smallpox, at first I didn’t feel the need to read someone else’s ideas on the anti-vaccination movement in England.

What changed that feeling was the increasingly strident view expressed by current vaccine defenders, that the anti-vaccination brigade of today, are “just like the superstitious idiots of the UK anti vaccination movement in the later half of the 19th century”. I knew this was untrue. When a book review suggested that “Bodily Matters” was “radical” and attempts to set the record straight on the polical and social aspects of the anti vaccination movement in England between 1850 – 1907, I decided to read it.

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This book is an extension of Burbach’s thesis. The marks you get for a thesis, are often determined by the world view and opinions of the person marking your thesis. A thesis determines not only the “quality” of your degree, but the quality of your subsequent academic appointment. Anyone writing a thesis takes those factors into consideration before even outlining what their thesis will be. While this book has a tendency, at times, to wander unfocussed and duplicate information, the research done before writing this book was outstanding. The application of the research is selective, concentrating mainly on social and political issues. Within these limitations, “Bodily Matters” is an excellent book with a wide sweep, giving much to think about.

In the beginning of her book we read descriptions more usually penned by pro vaccine doctors, extensively describing the various anti-vaccine groups as “sects”; their information as “propaganda”, and holding that they “preached” their message. The first part of the book feels slightly incredulous, as if distasteful of retrospectively perceived “stupidity”, and holding them at a distance, like a very dirty handkerchief. She discusses the diverse ideas of the time which appear ludicrous today, as to where smallpox came from, and the differing medical attitudes towards the disease.

Then Burbach describes the impact of compulsory vaccination laws; the fact that they mainly affected the poor, and what it meant to have been a pro vaccine parent and to watch one’s newborn baby die in such horrible ways, though she limits and sanitises her descriptions of these. She described the communities; how people lived cheek by jowl, knowing other parents who also watched their babies die. She details why parents would rather pay fines and go to jail than vaccinate subsequent babies.

She details the social classes involved in the anti vaccination movements; the various organisations and what motivated them. With these descriptions, the tenor of this book changes, as she starts to feel their lives and experiences. She describes the fact that most of the parents in front of the judge or thrown into jail were exemplary parents, whom doctors and others admitted were not your average criminal. One doctor and judge testified to the Royal Commission that anti-vaccinators were “sober and industrious, good citizens” and that it was “among the people who never object to vaccination that you will find the drunken and dissolute classes.” (page 105)

You get to feel some of what gave these good, thinking, conscientious parents, their backbone, to the point where vast communities across England supported one another financially, actively, day to day, year by year, across classes with a mix of medical and lay people, for decades.

You start to understand why politicians, the police, auctioneers and pro vaccine doctors feared them greatly.

Previously “loaded” words disappear, and distaste for the movement dissolves as she describes the parents’ “reality show” for what it really was. A telling sentence is at the end of her “Acknowledgements” is where Burbach says that all those parents ever wanted, was to have happy, healthy children.

Remember how at high school we learned about prison reform and Elizabeth Fry? This book talks about the prison reform later forced on the British government, by the Quakers. An action which stemmed directly from the experiences of the many Christians who landed up in horrendously abusive jails for refusing to vaccinate their babies!

Just as I felt that she might have “got it”, the tenor changed. As if frightened by relating to real people, the language changes, and the lunatic fringe element of society is given another dusting off.

Left out of “Bodily Matters”, are examples from the vast historical medical data-base (which both sides manipulated mercilessly); descriptions of the legions of doctors who WERE anti vaccine. Little is mentioned from the testimony of doctors from all over the world to the Royal Commission on Vaccinations, who gave evidence from their own practices, as to the very real dangers of the smallpox vaccine, and just how much disease and death, arm-to-arm vaccination caused. (Only covered is society’s allegations and florid language of this.)

Also missing is the fact that the increasingly large numbers of doctors and surgeons giving evidence, or speaking out, so distressed the British Medical Association, that they established the GMC (General Medical Council) whose function since then has been to judge the acceptableness or otherwise of a doctors professional standing and practice, dependant on toeing the party line.

Only briefly does Burbach touch on the fact that a lot of the anti vaccine material was provided by doctors, or that doctors were involved in the anti vaccine movement. While the anti-vaccine movement didn’t “need” those doctors in the sense that, just like today, nothing negates experiences seared into a pro vaccine parent’s brain, or the reasons why they speak out, doctors were part of the movement. Apart from two pages of descriptions (116-117); a photo of a baby in a coffin with not a sign of a problem, and another of a somewhat blurry disfigured arm-pit, Burbach concentrates primarily on unwisely worded sentiments of various groups; their emotional outrage, in various different florid styles of writing. What remains, is a rather sanitised, unreal, distanced view of what really did matter to parents, when it came to their babies’ bodies.

Nowhere though, did I see in the book, the many testimonies from these parents and movements, that children subsequently NOT vaccinated, didn’t die like their first vaccinated children did.

This book is part of a "radical perspective" series, though there is debate over what "radical history" is. Unlike current pro vaccine propaganda on the anti vaccine movement of the past, this book tells a small part of the truth for a change. Therefore, this book could only be considered “radical” if you consider truth a radical concept.

"Bodily Matters" stays silent on the many other truths which might disturb current medical projects as to how to condition people's views on "the late, great smallpox vaccination, which saved everyone from a fate worse than perdition".

This book cries out for a companion volume describing what was missed out, but that would never be tolerated by “acceptable” academia.

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