Science  /  Retrieval

'I Long Regretted Bitterly, and Still Regret That I Had Not Given It To Him'

Benjamin Franklin's writing about losing his son to smallpox is a must-read for parents weighing COVID-19 vaccines today.

Parents of elementary school children received great news last week; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children 5-11 years old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off in turn on Nov. 2, and now kids may be able to start getting vaccinated as soon as this week with a dose one-third of the strength given to those 12 and older.

And yet, some parents are still worried about how their children will react to these safe and effective vaccines. Reasons for their hesitancy are broad, but hesitancy about medical interventions to resist infectious disease is nothing new in the United States—and can be traced back as far as the nation’s earliest days.

In the late 18th century, one of America’s Founding Fathers penned a timely message for parents about the importance of protecting children from infectious disease. It came from painful first-hand experience; as a 30-year-old father, Benjamin Franklin lost the youngest of his two sons, Francis Folger Franklin, to smallpox on Nov. 21, 1736, in Philadelphia. Francis was four years old. As Franklin wrote about this personal tragedy in his posthumously-published autobiography:

“In 1736, I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if the child died under it: my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

Smallpox epidemics occurred periodically in colonial America, says Howard Markel, pediatrician and Director, Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. Vaccinations weren’t available yet, so physicians offered inoculations, a dangerous procedure in which doctors filled a deep incision in the arm with the pus of a smallpox patient.

“Inoculation was a really risky thing,” says Markel, explaining that patients agreeing to the treatment “definitely got very sick after it. Those who survived would be immune, [but] some 15%-20% got active smallpox and died.”