Robert D. Johnston is professor of History and director of the Teaching of History program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His book The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon received the President’s Book Award from the Social Science History Association. Currently he is working on a history of controversies over vaccination in American history from the early 18th century to the present, under contract with Oxford University Press. His numerous interventions in the politics of historiography include the essay on 1877-1917 in Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, eds., American History Now (2011). Recently he completed a term as co-editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. A winner of multiple teaching awards, Johnston has received UIC’s highest prize for teaching as well as the university’s Graduate Mentoring Award. He facilitates professional development for teachers locally and nationally, ranging from the Newberry Library Teachers Consortium to the NEH K-12 Teachers Institute “Rethinking the Gilded Age and Progressivisms: Race, Capitalism, and Democracy, 1877-1920” (for which he serves as Academic Director). He is co-editor of the “Teaching and Textbooks” section of the Journal of American History as well as co-chair of the Test Development Committee for the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam. Johnston serves as a vice-president and chief steward of UIC’s faculty union, UIC United Faculty. Living on Chicago’s north side, he and his family root avidly for the Cubs.
Mainstream opinion, whether from public health officials or op-ed writers, has a simple response to controversies over vaccination. Those who favor vaccines are enlightened. Those who express skepticism are deluded and dangerous. Yet conflicts over immunization in American history are much more complex--and interesting--than this simplistic narrative would suggest. For one thing, such conflicts actually pre-date both the nation and vaccination, going back to vicious and nearly deadly struggles over inoculation during in Puritan Boston. Moreover, recent historians have compellingly argued that vaccine dissenters have, not infrequently, offered perspectives on medicine and politics that have actually expanded liberty and democracy. I seek to extend this basic insight. I do not question that portions of the historical anti-vaccination movement have been radically anti-science as well as anti-civil libertarian (think Dr. Strangelove and bodily fluids). Yet vaccine dissidents’ commitments to bodily autonomy, and to a broad conception of populism, have also informed democratic struggles--from resistance to slavery to immigrants’ rights, from Progressive Era fights against monopoly to feminist movements to expand women’s control over their own bodies. Historians often do their best taking seriously even the most marginalized or seemingly benighted voices. We should not allow presentist lenses, or a facile spirit of condemnation, to miss the complexity of the fascinating range of past debates over vaccination in American history.