Michael Willrich is the Leff Families Professor of History at Brandeis University. His first book, City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago (2003), won the American Historical Association's John H. Dunning Prize and the American Society for Legal History's Cromwell Book Prize. Most recently, he is the author of Pox: An American History (2011) which tells the story of the great wave of smallpox epidemics that struck the United States around the turn of the twentieth century, spurring the growth of modern public health authority and engendering widespread opposition to the government policy of compulsory vaccination. This book won the OAH Lawrence W. Levine Prize Award and the American Association for the History of Medicine's William H. Welch Medal. With the support of Guggenheim and American Council of Learned Society fellowships, he is currently working on a book, "The Anarchist's Advocate," about anarchists' encounters with law and the state in early twentieth-century America.
Should the government have the power to compel the people to get vaccinated against a deadly disease, even if the vaccine itself carries real health risks to individuals? As epidemic smallpox raged across the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, ordinary Americans put this question before their legislatures, their courts, and the public. While many Americans willingly submitted to vaccination during this public health emergency, many others rioted, formed antivaccination leagues, staged school strikes, forged vaccination certificates, lobbied politicians, and (being Americans) litigated. In the process, they turned the “vaccination question” into the foremost civil liberties debate of their day. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the issue in the 1905 case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts. Michael Willrich will discuss the history of that landmark constitutional decision, and consider its implications for the politics of health in our own time.