Alfred Russel Wallace, eminent naturalist and codis-
coverer of the principle of natural selection, was a major
participant in the antivaccination campaigns in late 19th-
century England. Wallace combined social reformism and
quantitative arguments to undermine the claims of provac-
cinationists and had a major impact on the debate. A brief
account of Wallace’s background, his role in the campaign,
and a summary of his quantitative arguments leads to the
conclusion that it is unwarranted to portray Victorian anti-
vaccination campaigners in general as irrational and anti-
science. Public health policy can beneﬁ t from history, but
the proper context of the evidence used should always be
kept in mind.
In 2009, the scientiﬁ c community commemorated the
200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anni-
versary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by
Means of Natural Selection. These occasions also directed
the view of a wider public to the unjustly neglected ﬁ gure
of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) (Figure), explorer
and codiscoverer of the principle of natural selection. In
the past few years, Wallace’s work has in fact enjoyed in-
creasing attention among the historians of science, as sev-
eral new biographies and studies prove (1–5). But unlike
Darwin, Wallace always was and probably will remain a
serious challenge to the history of science: he stubbornly
refuses to ﬁ t into the mold of the typical scientiﬁ c hero.
Wallace made without any doubt lasting contributions to
biologic science, but the second half of his life was by and
large devoted to what from today’s perspective are utterly
lost causes: He became a passionate advocate of spiritual-
ism, supported land nationalization, and fervently objected
to compulsory smallpox vaccination.
The motives behind Wallace’s campaigns are some-
times difﬁ cult to fathom. He published copiously because
this served for a long time as his major source of income,
but these writings only show the public face of Wallace.
Unlike Darwin, Wallace did not leave behind a large num-
ber of private letters and other personal documents; there-
fore, his more private thoughts, motives, and deliberations
will probably remain unknown.
I provide a short introduction to Wallace’s life and
work and then describe his contributions to the British
antivaccination campaigns. Wallace’s interventions were
inﬂ uential; he was popular and well liked inside and out-
side scientiﬁ c circles and, despite his controversial social
reformism, commanded deep respect for his achievements
and his personal qualities until the end of his long life.
I also brieﬂ y analyze the similarities and differences
between the Victorian and contemporary vaccination de-
bates. It has recently been argued that comparative his-
torical analysis can play a major role in public health
policy (6,7). In contemporary vaccination controversies,
history is frequently used as a source of arguments (8,9),
but the historical argument often is not based on up-to-
date historical understanding. The polarizing controver-
sies surrounding vaccination have never completely gone
away, and the nearly unbroken tradition of debate appar-
ently entices participants to reuse old arguments without
making certain that their context is still valid. Vaccination
involves national and international politics and the deeply
personal sphere of child care. It is thus probably inevi-
table that culturally inﬂ uenced ideas of bodily integrity
and health from time to time are at odds with so-called
vaccination technocracies (10).
Alfred Russel Wallace and the
Antivaccination Movement in
Thomas P. Weber
664 Emerging Infectious Diseases • www.cdc.gov/eid • Vol. 16, No. 4, April 2010
Author afﬁ liation: Ispra, Italy
Wallace and the Antivaccination Movement
Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace’s humble origins contrast
sharply with Charles Darwin’s privileged background.
Wallace was born on January 8, 1823, in the Welsh village
of Llanbadoc into an impoverished middle-class family. In
1836, when his parents could no longer support him, he was
taken out of school to earn a living. He joined his brother
John in London to work as a builder. In London, he regu-
larly attended meetings at the Hall of Science in Totten-
ham Court Road, where followers of the utopian socialist
Robert Owen lectured. Thus, as an adolescent, he became
acquainted with radical sciences such as phrenology (11).
In 1841, when Wallace was working as a land surveyor in
Wales, a slump in business enabled him to devote more
time to his developing interests in natural history. A few
years later, while working as a teacher in Leicester, Wal-
lace met the 19-year-old amateur entomologist Henry Wal-
ter Bates, who introduced him to beetle collecting. Wallace
returned to Wales, but he stayed in touch with Bates; in
their letters they discussed natural history and recent books.
In 1847, inspired by reading the best-selling and scandal-
ous Vestiges of the History of Creation, an anonymously
published book that offered a naturalistic, developmental
history of the cosmos and life, Wallace and Bates decided
to travel to the Amazon River basin to study the origin of
species, paying for their journey by working as profession-
al specimen collectors.
Wallace spent the next 14 years of his life, interrupted
only by a stay in England from October 1852 until early
April 1854, collecting specimens in the Amazon Basin and
the Malay Archipelago. As with Darwin, the geographic
variation of supposedly stable species nurtured in Wallace
the idea of organic change. An 1855 paper, On the Law
Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species, is
Wallace’s ﬁ rst formal statement of his understanding of the
process of biological evolution. In this paper, he derives
the law that “every species has come into existence coinci-
dent both in time and space with pre-existing closely allied
species.” In February 1858, while having a severe malaria
attack, Wallace connected the ideas of Thomas Malthus
(1766–1834) on the regulation of populations with his ear-
lier reasoning and developed a concept that was similar to
Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection. Eager to share
his discovery, Wallace wrote an essay on the subject as
soon as he had recovered and sent it off to Darwin. This
innocent act by Wallace set off the well-known and often
recounted story of Darwin’s hurried writing and publica-
tion of On the Origin of Species.
Wallace returned to England in 1862 after the initial
storm of reaction to Darwin’s theory had blown over. To-
gether with Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895), he be-
came one of the most vocal defenders of the theory of evo-
lution. In the years up to 1880 he also wrote a large number
of essays, letters, reviews and monographs that secured his
position as one of the foremost naturalists in the United
Kingdom; this status, however, did not translate into a per-
manent position or even some semblance of ﬁ nancial se-
curity. Only in 1881, after an intervention by Darwin and
other eminent scientists, did he receive a Civil List Pension
of 200£ per year. After 1880, having ﬁ nished most of his
major monographs, Wallace more and more directed his
attention toward social issues and turned into a social radi-
cal—his conversion to spiritualism had already occurred in
the 1860s. He remained faithful to his radical course until
his death in 1913.
The ﬁ rst Vaccination Act in England was passed in
1840; it outlawed variolation (i.e., the practice of infecting
a person with actual smallpox) and provided vaccination
that used vaccines developed from cow pox or vaccinia vi-
rus free of charge. The 1853 Act made vaccination manda-
tory and included measures to punish parents or guardians
Emerging Infectious Diseases • www.cdc.gov/eid • Vol. 16, No. 4, April 2010 665
Figure. Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913). Perhaps best
remembered today in history of science as the codiscoverer of the
principle of natural selection, Wallace also played a prominent role
in the antivaccination movement in late 19th century England.
who failed to comply. Changes in the law passed in 1867
permitted the authorities to enforce vaccination more ef-
ﬁ ciently. The law allowed the repeated prosecution of par-
ents who failed to have their child vaccinated. The 1871
Act authorized the appointment of vaccination ofﬁ cers,
whose task it was to identify cases of noncompliance. In
1889, in response to widespread public resistance, Parlia-
ment appointed a Royal Commission to draft recommenda-
tions to reform the system. The Commission published its
conclusions in 1896. It suggested allowing conscientious
objection, an exemption which passed into law in 1898. In
the early 20th century, <200,000 exemptions were granted
annually, representing ≈25% of all births (12).
The ﬁ rst vaccination act mainly incited resistance
from heterodox medical practitioners who were forced
out of business. Large-scale popular resistance began af-
ter the 1867 Act with its threat of coercive cumulative
penalties. The social and political diversity of the British
antivaccination movement is vividly described by Dur-
bach (12). Many of the ≈200 organizations were quite
eccentric, even by the standards of the time. However,
Durbach’s analysis and other analyses (13) show that it
is not correct to portray antivaccinationists indiscrimi-
nately as antirational, antimodern, and antiscientiﬁ c. Just
considering the details of the vaccination practice of the
mid-19th century does much to make many criticisms
understandable. For instance, the widespread arm-to-arm
vaccination, used until 1898, carried substantial risks, and
the instruments used (14) could contribute to severe ad-
verse reactions. Furthermore, many antivaccinationists
appealed, like their opponents, to enlightenment values
and expertly used quantitative arguments.
Wallace himself apparently did not hold strong opin-
ions about vaccination until the mid-1880s. He had received
a vaccination as a young man before he left for South
America, and all 3 of his children were vaccinated as well.
Wallace was recruited some time in 1884 to the antivac-
cination movement through the efforts of his fellow spiri-
tualist William Tebb (1830–1917), a radical liberal who in
1880 had cofounded the London Society for the Abolition
of Compulsory Vaccination. Wallace’s commitment to the
antivaccination cause was without doubt motivated by his
social reformism, which in turn was underpinned by spiri-
tualism and Swedenborgianism (3,15). These metaphysical
foundations led him to a holistic view of health; he was
convinced that smallpox was a contagious disease, but he
also was certain that differences in susceptibility caused by
nutritional or sanitary deﬁ ciencies played a major role in
the epidemiology of the disease.
Despite his strong metaphysical commitments, Wal-
lace, however, always remained a devoted empiricist and
was among the ﬁ rst to use a statistics-based critique of a
public health problem. Some of the groundwork for Wal-
lace’s quantitative critique was laid by the highly regarded,
but controversial, physicians Charles Creighton (1847–
1927) and Edgar Crookshank (1858–1928). They attacked
simplistic interpretations of and conclusions from Edward
Jenner’s work (16) and demonstrated how difﬁ cult it is to
determine vaccination success and vaccination status and
to know what kind of contagion was actually used in an
inoculation or vaccination. In works such as Vaccination
Proved Useless and Dangerous (1889) or Vaccination a
Delusion, Its Penal Enforcement a Crime (1898), Wallace
mounted his attack on several claims: 1) that death from
smallpox was lower for vaccinated than for unvaccinated
populations; 2), that the attack rate was lower for vacci-
nated populations: and 3) that vaccination alleviates the
clinical symptoms of smallpox.
Both provaccinationists and antivaccinationists relied
heavily on time series of smallpox mortality rate data, which
showed a general decline over the 19th century overlaid by
several smaller epidemic peaks and the large pandemic peak
of 1870–1873. Their conclusions from these data differed
according to the way these data were subdivided into peri-
ods (17). For example, if it were assumed that vaccination
rates increased in 1867, when cumulative penalties were
introduced and fewer dared to challenge the vaccination
law, and not in 1871, when the smallpox pandemic acceler-
ated, then the rate of decline of smallpox mortality rates
was lower when vaccination was more prevalent. Wallace
concluded from his analysis that smallpox mortality rates
increased with vaccination coverage, whereas his oppo-
nents concluded the exact opposite. Wallace argued that the
problem of determining vaccination status was serious and
undermined the claims of his opponents. He asserted that
the physicians’ belief in the efﬁ cacy of vaccination led to
a bias in categorizing persons on the basis of interpretation
of true or false vaccination scars. Additionally, epidemio-
logic data for vaccination status were seriously incomplete.
Depending on the sample, the vaccination status of 30%–
70% of the persons recorded as dying from smallpox was
unknown. Furthermore, if a person contracted the disease
shortly after a vaccination, it was often entirely unclear if
the patient should be categorized as vaccinated or unvac-
cinated. Provaccinationists argued that the error introduced
by this ambiguity was most likely to be random and thus
would not affect the estimate of the efﬁ ciency of the vac-
cine. In contrast, Wallace believed that doctors would have
been more willing to report a death from smallpox in an
unvaccinated patient and that this led to a serious bias and
an overestimation of vaccine efﬁ ciency.
Wallace’s holistic conception of health inﬂ uenced
his argument as well. He was convinced that susceptibil-
ity to the disease of smallpox was not distributed equally
across social classes. Weakened, poor persons living in
squalor were in his opinion less likely to get vaccinated.
666 Emerging Infectious Diseases • www.cdc.gov/eid • Vol. 16, No. 4, April 2010
Wallace and the Antivaccination Movement
At the same time they would have higher smallpox mortal-
ity rates because their living conditions made them more
susceptible to the disease. He supported his hypothesis that
susceptibilities differ with the observation that the mortal-
ity rate of unvaccinated persons had increased to 30% after
the introduction of vaccination, while the vaccinated had
enjoyed a slight survival advantage. This demonstrated
to Wallace that factors other than vaccination must have
played a major role.
The numerical arguments used by Wallace and his op-
ponents were based on an actuarial type of statistics, i.e., the
analysis of life tables and mortalities. Inferential statistics
that could be more helpful in identifying potential causes
did not yet exist. The statistical approach to the vaccination
debate used by Wallace and his opponents could simply not
resolve the issue of vaccine efﬁ ciency; thus, each side was
free to choose the interpretation that suited its needs best.
However, despite its indecisive outcome, the debate was a
major step in deﬁ ning what kind of evidence was needed
(17). It is also unjustiﬁ ed to portray the debate as a contro-
versy of science versus antiscience because the boundaries
between orthodox and heterodox science we are certain of
today were far less apparent in the Victorian era (18). What
the scope and methods of science were or should be were
topics still to be settled. It is thus unwarranted to portray
the 19th-century antivaccination campaigners generally as
blindly religious, misguided, or irrational cranks. This judg-
ment certainly does not apply to Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace was modern, but he represented an alternative
version of modernity, a version that has been sidelined in
historiography until recently but has lately been acknowl-
edged as a central cultural feature of the late 19th century
(19). Movements such as spiritualism were not resurrec-
tions of ancient traditions but used interpretations of the
most recent natural science, such as experimental psychol-
ogy, evolutionary biology, and astronomy (20), or electro-
magnetism (21). Some, like Wallace, also contested the
social role that emerging professional sciences should play.
Wallace strongly favored a natural science that also ad-
dressed moral, political, social, and metaphysical concerns,
and with this inclination he ran against the tide that was
more concerned with developing a barrier between politics
and disinterested, objective science. In the case of vacci-
nation, Wallace argued that liberty and science need to be
taken into account, but that liberty is far more important
than science. Wallace only appears to have been such a he-
retical ﬁ gure if a large portion of the social, political, and
intellectual reality of Victorian and Edwardian England is
blotted out of the picture.
To argue that, then as now, the controversies are be-
tween religiously motivated, irrational eccentrics and ra-
tional, disinterested science is historically inaccurate and
distracts from substantial differences in social, political,
and economic context between then and now. The Vic-
torian vaccination legislation was part of an unfair, thor-
oughly class-based, coercive, and disciplinary healthcare
and justice system: poor, working-class persons were sub-
jected to the full force of the law while better-off persons
were provided with safer vaccines and could easily avoid
punishment if they did not comply. The National Health
Service, established in 1948, was planned to bring more
social justice to health care. The new health system no lon-
ger was stigmatizing and coercive. The development has
not stopped there: today, there is an increasingly strong
emphasis on individual choice and involvement in decision
making in the healthcare system in Great Britain. Patients
have become customers. The contemporary vaccination
controversy has to be seen against the opportunities and
challenges offered within this new environment. It has be-
come evident that population-based risk assessments of
vaccine safety often fail to convince in this new context
(10). Parents instead evince a clinical, individual-based at-
titude when assessing the risks of vaccination—their own
children are often judged not to be average.
In Great Britain, such attitudes are reinforced by the
recent developments, mentioned above, in the healthcare
system that encourage choice and autonomy and also by
individualized perspectives concerning parenting and child
development. Such a clinical perspective of parents can,
however, cut both ways. The individually witnessed causal
relationship between therapy and recovery in the case of
tetanus and diphtheria was instrumental in the widespread
public acceptance of immunization (17). A similar mecha-
nism is at play in the contemporary controversies: perceived
causal relationships between vaccination and the appear-
ance of complications undermine the claims that vaccines
are generally safe.
This analysis also illustrates that contemporary vacci-
nation controversies take place in speciﬁ c historical con-
texts. Colgrove (22) depicts in detail how vaccination be-
came an accepted public health intervention in the United
States and what factors have fueled and inﬂ uenced historical
and contemporary controversies. For example, compared
with most countries in Europe, the risk of costly litigation
for pharmaceutical companies in the United States is much
higher and the role of the state is seen as far more restricted.
This speciﬁ c background inﬂ uences forms of provaccina-
tion and antivaccination campaigning, but it also needs to
be taken into account that the increasing availability of In-
ternet resources accessible from everywhere may contrib-
ute to making the arguments and the debate more uniform
across the globe.
Modern vaccines save lives. But worries surrounding
vaccination need to be taken seriously. And the lessons
Emerging Infectious Diseases • www.cdc.gov/eid • Vol. 16, No. 4, April 2010 667
taught by history are, as usual, complex. As pointed out
forcefully by Leach and Fairhead (10), vaccine delivery
systems must suit social, cultural, and political realities. Pa-
ternalistic and coercive attitudes were harmful in the 19th
century and are even less appropriate in the 21st century.
Dr Weber is a biologist working in the ﬁ elds of public health
and consumer protection. He also publishes regularly in the his-
tory of science and has a particular research interest in the history
of evolutionary biology.
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Address for correspondence: Thomas P. Weber, via Marsala 17, 21014
Laveno Mombello, Italy; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
668 Emerging Infectious Diseases • www.cdc.gov/eid • Vol. 16, No. 4, April 2010