Was Ben right to choose the “common way” of infection? Well, no, he wasn’t, although inoculation was nasty. First, a string was drawn through a pustule of someone infected with smallpox. The string was then left to dry, and later drawn through a cut made on an uninfected person. The resulting infection was milder in form and about two percent of those inoculated died from infection versus 15 percent of those who became infected the common way.
Ben Franklin was a brilliant man, but in this case, he failed to look at the science. Some years after losing his son, he said:
“In 1736 I lost one of my Sons, a fine Boy of 4 Years old, taken by the Smallpox in the common way. I long regretted that I had not given it to him by Inoculation, which I mention for the Sake of Parents, who omit that Operation on the Supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a Child died under it; my Example showing that the Regret may be the same either way, and that therefore the safer should be chosen.”
After his son’s death, Franklin became a big believer in inoculation, considering it the safer choice. He wrote an introduction to English physician William Heberden’s pamphlet on the subject, which promoted the act and even explained how parents could inoculate their children themselves. Ben then distributed the document in America.
Nearly 300 years after Ben Franklin chose between two risks and lost, parents face the same choices. No vaccine is 100 percent safe, and no disease is 100 percent benign. There’s a risk when vaccinating and a risk when choosing natural infection.
The fact is, our kids don’t live in bubbles, and we can’t keep them safe from exposure to germs. Although the vaccines today are not perfectly risk-free, they are much safer than the infections they prevent.
All we can do as parents is look at the science, talk to our pediatricians, and make the safest choices for our kids.