Feature Article: Ben Franklin — Pro-vaccine Before Vaccines Were Invented?

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Parents PACK

This month’s edition of the Parents PACK newsletter was inspired by Dr. Paul Offit’s receipt of the 2016 Benjamin Franklin Founder Award. Dr. Offit is the director of the Vaccine Education Center. Award recipients are chosen for their significant accomplishments in a field of Franklin’s interest; this year’s focus was public health. We hope that after reading about several of Dr. Franklin’s contributions, you will be inspired to share ways that you have made or are currently making your community a better place for all. Use #BeLikeBen on social media to share your contributions — large or small.

January 2016 marked the 310th birthday of Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Dr. Franklin is well known for his historic role as a founding father and diplomat as well as for his accomplishments as a statesman, author, politician, scientist, inventor and activist.

Among his many contributions to colonial American society, Dr. Franklin was an avid supporter of a collective focus on public health and safety. He helped establish the nation’s first public hospital, Pennsylvania Hospital, and contributed to a variety of medical discoveries (see Did You Know section below). As a public health activist, Dr. Franklin is remembered as an avid supporter of smallpox inoculation in the 1730s. At that time, protection from smallpox was afforded by a process known as variolation. Variolation involved taking pus from a smallpox pustule of an infected person and either injecting it into a non-immune person or drying it for later inhalation as a powder by a non-immune person. While the process would typically cause a mild form of the illness, it also produced lifelong immunity.

Sadly, Franklin’s support of inoculation through variolation was fueled in large part by the death of his 4-year-old son, Francis, following infection with smallpox. In his autobiography, Franklin 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 a child died under it, my example showing that the regret may be the same either way and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”


To many, purposeful infection through variolation was unacceptable; but, as was his talent in proscribing enlightened and nuanced thought to traditional thinking, Franklin educated himself on the matter and came to see the process as groundbreaking. He used his correspondence with doctors, civic leaders and politicians in colonial America and Europe to promote the practice and co-authored a manual, Some Account of the Success of Inoculation for the Small-Pox in England and America: Together with Plain Instructions, which was published and distributed in England and America in 1759.

Franklin died six years before Edward Jenner invented the smallpox vaccine — the world’s first vaccine — and nearly 200 years before the eradication of smallpox. Franklin’s and others’ experience with smallpox can be a reminder of not only the threat posed by infectious diseases, but also the realization that all parents worry about the best ways to protect their children. The difference is that some of the greatest concerns of yesteryear no longer commonly occupy the minds of parents today because of scientific progress related to many of the deadliest infectious diseases.

Did You Know? . . . Dr. Franklin’s Medical Contributions

In addition to raising funds for and opening the nation’s first hospital, Dr. Franklin’s zeal and activism for public health and safety led to many other groundbreaking discoveries and inventions:

Bifocals (“double spectacles”)

Quite famous among his contributions to public health were Dr. Franklin’s “double spectacles,” later known as bifocals. He halved the lens from his reading and regular glasses and placed them in the same frame. Franklin is thought to have worn bifocals for up to 50 years before they were commonly used.

Flexible catheter

Dr. Franklin invented a flexible catheter for his brother, John, who suffered from bladder stones and urine retention. Made from silver wire and coiled to create flexibility, this replaced hard, unbending tubes that were uncomfortable and often painful.

Lead poisoning

Franklin’s work in the printing business caused him to experience the effects of continued exposure to lead. Observing similar symptoms in others commonly exposed to lead in the course of their work, Franklin was one of the first to hypothesize a link between health problems and lead exposure.

Common cold

In Dr. Franklin’s time, many attributed the cause of the common cold to factors such as dampness in the air or clothes and changes in temperature. But Franklin observed that sailors, who were constantly exposed to damp air while wearing wet clothing, were relatively healthy, leading him to conclude that colds passed from person to person through the air. Given the then limited understanding of viruses and bacteria, his suggestion was well ahead of scientific understanding at the time.

Reviewed: January 25, 2024

Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family's personal health. You should not use it to replace any relationship with a physician or other qualified healthcare professional. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult your physician or, in serious cases, seek immediate assistance from emergency personnel.