One of the most gruesome bits in the John Adams miniseries comes when Dr. Benjamin Rush suggests the family be given smallpox, as a form of vaccination, and Mrs. Adams (played by Laura Linney) does so.
The dramatic point is that the family is modern, willing to risk its life on what science says. But in many ways Rush (right, by Peale) was a quack, who believed in bloodletting and the idea that black people had a disease called “negroidism” that could be cured.
The lesson I get is that science often takes wrong turns and “belief” in the scientific method is no protection from its mistakes.
Which brings me back to the recent, ongoing H1N1 “swine” flu epidemic now sweeping the world. As of mid-May, 68 people in Mexico had died from it, perhaps 100,000 Americans infected, and panic was continuing to spread worldwide.
One big mystery spreading the sense of fear. Young people seem more susceptible. But one important fact bears repeating. Just 4 in every 1,000 people who get this flu die, a figure comparable to normal seasonal flu outbreaks, from which millions of Americans refuse vaccines as a matter of routine.
What scientists are beginning to wonder is whether similarities between this flu strain and previous strains are offering older folks a degree of immunity, as in the 1918 pandemic and the 1977 Russian flu.
If that’s true then victims of this flu may be unwitting re-enactors of Dr. Rush’s smallpox experiments from two centuries ago, in which he injected pus from smallpox sores into healthy people in hopes of creating immunity.
The fear of scientists today concerning this flu is that it will mutate further, becoming more deadly, and return with a vengeance this winter. If this happens we may want to track today’s sufferers, and see if Dr. Rush was right.