Bodily Matters

The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853–1907

Bodily Matters

Radical Perspectives

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Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 12 illus. Published: December 2004

Author: Nadja Durbach

History > European History, Medicine and Health > Medical Humanities

Bodily Matters explores the anti-vaccination movement that emerged in England in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth in response to government-mandated smallpox vaccination. By requiring a painful and sometimes dangerous medical procedure for all infants, the Compulsory Vaccination Act set an important precedent for state regulation of bodies. From its inception in 1853 until its demise in 1907, the compulsory smallpox vaccine was fiercely resisted, largely by members of the working class who interpreted it as an infringement of their rights as citizens and a violation of their children’s bodies. Nadja Durbach contends that the anti-vaccination movement is historically significant not only because it was arguably the largest medical resistance campaign ever mounted in Europe but also because it clearly articulated pervasive anxieties regarding the integrity of the body and the role of the modern state.

Analyzing historical documents on both sides of the vaccination debate, Durbach focuses on the key events and rhetorical strategies of the resistance campaign. She shows that those for and against the vaccine had very different ideas about how human bodies worked and how best to safeguard them from disease. Individuals opposed to mandatory vaccination saw their own and their children’s bodies not as potentially contagious and thus dangerous to society but rather as highly vulnerable to contamination and violation. Bodily Matters challenges the notion that resistance to vaccination can best be understood, and thus easily dismissed, as the ravings of an unscientific “lunatic fringe.” It locates the anti-vaccination movement at the very center of broad public debates in Victorian England over medical developments, the politics of class, the extent of government intervention into the private lives of its citizens, and the values of a liberal society.


Bodily Matters provides a detailed and meticulous study of the complexities of the movement. . . . [A] useful pioneering study of a neglected aspect of Victorian medical politics.” — Lesley A. Hall, Victorians Institute Journal

Bodily Matters is a sophisticated and persuasive project; it evokes timely questions on the body and the state and suggests some thought-provoking answers. The book will certainly be of value to any of us interested in the sociology of medicine, the sociology of the body, social movements, and British history.” — Sigal Gooldin, American Journal of Sociology

Bodily Matters makes an important contribution to the contemporary reassessment of many facets of Victorian Culture.” — Martin Finchman, Victorian Studies

“[Durbach’s] insightful study is the most comprehensive and sophisticated treatment of this profoundly misunderstood English movement. . . . A highly persuasive and ground-breaking analysis of the main ingredients of the Victorian anti-vaccination movement and its impact on Victorian society.” — Jennifer E. Keelan, Body and Society

“Clearly written and pointedly illustrated, the book focuses on the key events and strategies of the anti-vaccinationists’ campaign. . . . Bodily Matters is not, however, simply a contribution to the subdiscipline of medical history. Big themes of general British nineteenth-century history play a significant part in this story, and anti-vaccinationism, as Durbach shows, provides a useful example of the tensions between Old Liberalism and New Liberalism, class relations, gender issues, and resistance to state intervention.” — Anne Hardy, History

“Durbach has produced a rich and sympathetic picture of those stigmatised by many Victorians and their successors as mad, bad, dangerous, poor, stupid, or downright bloodyminded. . . . [An] important book. . . .” — Chris Lawrence, Metascience

“Durbach provides a nuanced understanding of activists’ words and actions.” — James Colgrove, Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law

“Durbach writes about an important and little known footnote in the history of public health in a readable and accessible style. . . . recommend this to anyone with an interest in the history, politics or ethics of public health, and the vexed questions around personal liberty and the collective benefits of medical technology.” — Christopher C. Potter, Journal of Public Health

“Durbach's account of the anti-vaccination movement is clearly and forcefully written and provides an authoritative survey of Victorian debates about the role of the state in disease prevention. Bodily Matters will engage anyone interested in public health and the history of epidemiology, and post–9/11 fears about bioterrorism and the looming threat of a bird flu pandemic may broaden the audience for this text.”
— Solveig C. Robinson, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine

“Nadia Durbach’s book … is a sympathetic, nuanced, well-researched, and clearly written account of antivaccinationism in its historical context.” — Peter Baldwin, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“Nadja Durbach’s Bodily Matters is a rigorously researched and sensitive account of antivaccinationism in Victorian and Edwardian England that combines the insights of the history of medicine, political history, and the social and cultural histories of class and gender.” — Ian Burney, Journal of Modern History

“Nadja Durbach’s Bodily Matters… should be welcomed by students of health, gender, and citizenship.” — Chris Dooley, Left History

“This book should be of interest to students of Victorian Britain, historians of medicine, and those with a special interest in working-class history. Recommended.” — H. L. Smith, Choice

“This outstandingly vital work is a breakthrough in the historiography of English anti-vaccinationism.” — Logie Barrow, Medical History

"Bodily Matters gives us a new insight into antivaccination but shows us that much remains to be discovered about this curious Victorian protest movement." — Deborah Brunton, Journal of British Studies

"A clearly argued and detailed examination. . . . Bodily Matters is an accessible work that should appeal to a broad range of readers." — Dan Malleck, History: Reviews of New Books

"Engaging. . . . Durbach convincingly rescues the anti-vaccination movement from the fringes of medical, political, and social history, and demonstrates that anti-vaccinationists should be seen as central players in the construction of Victorianism. . . . A lively narrative." — Marjorie Levine-Clark, H-Albion, H-Net Reviews

"Fascinating. . . . Durbach writes well, and her book provides . . . abundant opportunity to reflect upon the many ways in which arguments in health care frequently are 'about' a great deal more than initially appears to be the case." — Edward E. St. Godard, Canadian Medical Association Journal

"Fascinating." — Christopher Hamlin, American Historical Review

"[T]imely and absorbing. . . . — Susan Pedersen, London Review of Books

“All too often the large-scale resistance to compulsory vaccination in England has been treated as a quaint case study in ‘anti-modern’ or ‘irrational’ opposition to scientific progress. Nadja Durbach has made a key contribution to modern British history in particular and to the analysis of class culture more generally by rescuing this resistance to state medicine from what E. P. Thompson memorably termed ‘the enormous condescension of posterity.’” — George Behlmer, author of Friends of the Family: The English Home and Its Guardians, 1850–1940

“This fascinating book uses the anti-vaccination movement to illuminate our understanding of the major themes in nineteenth-century British history: the nature of liberalism, class tensions, and resistance to state intervention. Beautifully written, it brings the movement to life.” — Anna Clark, author of Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Nadja Durbach is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. The Parliamentary Lancet 13

2. Fighting the “Babies’ Battle” 37

3. Populism, Citizenship, and the Politics of Victorian Liberalism 69

4. The Body Politics of Class Formation 91

5. Vampires, Vivisectors, and the Victorian Body 113

6. Germs, Dirt, and the Constitution 150

7. Class, Gender, and the Conscientious Objector 171

Conclusion 199

Notes 209

Bibliography 243

Index 269
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3423-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3412-5
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