Covid Vaccine-Hesitant Parents Should Read Benjamin Franklin’s Writing About Losing His Son to Smallpox

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The COVID-19 vaccine has been around for months now, but there are still many people who are hesitant to get vaccinated. What’s more, the vaccine has been approved for children as young as 5 for an even shorter amount of time, so there are even more parents out there who aren’t sure if they feel comfortable or not getting their kid vaccinated.

For parents who are on the fence, you have to read a message from Benjamin Franklin from the 18th century—one that has possibly even more importance today than it did back then.

The message explains how devastating it was when he lost his younger son, Francis, to smallpox at just four years old. The reason the son died was because Franklin hadn’t allowed him to get inoculated. (Vaccinations weren’t available yet, so an inoculation was an incision in the arm that contained the pus of a smallpox patient.)

The words really resonate right now! In fact, it almost feels like a second chance for parents who aren’t sure what to do. He wrote:

“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.”

Inoculations were actually deemed relatively unsafe—and he still regretted not getting it.

“Inoculation was a really risky thing,” says Howard Markel, pediatrician and Director, Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, adding that patients “definitely got very sick after it. Those who survived would be immune, [but] some 15%-20% got active smallpox and died.”

Vaccinations these days have much fewer risk factors than inoculations did back then. “Franklin’s talking about a really dangerous procedure called inoculation,” Markel says. “[Today] we’re offering 95% effective and wholly safe vaccines because we’ve done hundreds of millions of field trials already in people’s arms.”

Franklin’s son died—and he was never able to get him back. And in his eyes, he was to blame. He had to live with that for the rest of his life.

“Franklin blamed himself for not vaccinating Francis… and it’s something he never got over,” H.W. Brands writes in The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.

How do you feel about vaccinations for kids?