Book Review: Bodily Matters by Nadja Durbach, PhD

Review by Maria Ryan

(Note from Dr. Sherri Tenpenny: This is one of my favorite vaccination books. I refer to it often and highly recommend it for every library interested in the topic of vaccination.)

Bodily Matters is a historical account of the anti-vaccination movement which emerged in England during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is a part of A Radical History Review book series designed to advance politically-based historical research. It describes the early crude and dangerous smallpox vaccination procedures as well as details compulsory vaccination laws that blatantly targeted the poor.  

Bodily Matters follows England’s anti-vaccination movement from its inception. It zeroes in on the assaults by the State into the private lives and medical decisions of its citizens. It exposes the global reach of politics and the removal of bodily sovereignty. This debate goes far beyond smallpox and the erroneous belief that vaccination single-handedly wiped out the disease. The anti-vaccination movement was formed to retaliate against the government taking control of the body and against the gross misconduct of the state.

Today, many erroneously believe that vaccination is responsible for wiping out smallpox but history tells a far different story about the realities of smallpox vaccination as described by another author: “The invasive, insanitary, and sometimes disfiguring procedure seemed to many to be potentially more harmful than beneficial” (The Parliamentary Lancet, Bookshare digital version).

In the wake of September 11, a virus-like fear spread across the American population. It is the fear of an infectious disease taking hold and single-handedly wiping us off the map. Fear of any disease is believed to require an aggressive compulsory vaccination campaign for which there are no opt-outs. Only those awake and aware have been able to move beyond this fear and explore what the scientific literature actually states. Durbach’s book examines this fear and then takes on the larger debate about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, governmental abuse of power, and alternative health practices including the right to experience some infectious events that are vilified, such as measles and chickenpox, and to reap the known benefits natural infection.

Politics played the heaviest hand in early vaccination laws. The birth of the anti-vaccination movement was highly politicized, which had much to do with its success. The scientific evidence for the validity of vaccination was completely lacking. The biggest pitfall to the movement was any bargain struck with the government regarding compulsory requirements invited complacency or a lowering of their resolve to retain bodily autonomy. Freedom requires constant vigilance. This is one of the biggest lessons of Bodily Matters.

Durbach goes deep into the individual indignities and the right to bodily integrity. True ownership of an individual’s body has been a long-debated topic. The question of public health (based on dubious claims) trumping individual rights shows that these issues have always been a part of freedom. Bodily Matters explores the prevalent beliefs about what truly bolsters robust health. This is a book about an entire movement and cannot be branded a one-sided debate.

Section 1 details the origins of invasive medicine as practiced by the doctor and his lancet. This is often correctly seen as the power grab under the guise of ‘doctor knows best.’ It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the regulation of medicine and its governing bodies started to evolve. Vaccination was the first, consistent public health measure controlled by the State. It was the beginning of government-imposed health care to public consumers. It was during this time that compulsory vaccination became law (1853) and the poor became the earliest targets. The more economically fortunate had the option of consulting with alternative medical practitioners. Interestingly, alternative medicine itself rose as a threat to government overreach.

Section 2 states that though vaccination became compulsory in 1853, it was not enforced until the late 1860s. This gave the anti-vaccination movement wings. Starting as Our Babies’ Battle, many who joined the resistance did so because their children had been maimed or had died as a result of a smallpox vaccine. When the method for administering vaccination became more aggressive, the resistance also ramped up. Civil disobedience became commonplace and the anti-vaccination movement became a structured movement. Organized anti-vaccination protests were the cornerstone of the first anti-vaccination structure known as the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League. Most dissenters were the working-class laborers, shop owners, clerks, and factory workers. They were an active group. Their campaigns were highly politicized and included written pamphlets and public protests. Violence was often a part of the resistance largely initiated by men but included women as well.

Today, one of the most common statements made by the heavily indoctrinated is that the anti-vaccine movement has always been here, meaning, that no one should pay attention to a fringe group that has been shouting from the sidelines since vaccines and vaccine mandates began. If that’s true, then why would the WHO declare vaccine hesitancy one of the Top 10 threats to global health in 2019? Is this label simply propaganda to keep us in line or is the government trying to suppress us because today, the anti-vax movement brings solid science and large numbers of resisters to the table?

Section 3 shows how anti-vaccination and anti-vivisection agitators were able to successfully draw support across middle, lower-middle, and working-class citizens. Rhetoric was often used to unite campaigners across socio-economic spectrums. The language remained flexible enough to appeal to all classes. For example, anti-vaccinators also expressed concern over the imperialistic practices of forced vaccination on colonial peoples and the Africans. An integral part of the resistance was the long-standing debate over who “owns” a child – the parents or the State. Those against compulsory vaccination also rallied for control over their own homes and their families. They believed it was hypocrisy for the state to have the right to inoculate babies but assume no responsibility for the outcome. How similar is this to what parents are facing today?

Section 4 covers the politics behind the various anti-vaccination classes, which was not without its problems. As vaccine administrators “tracked, fined and imprisoned working-class defaulters,” (The Body Politics of Class Formation, Bookshare, digital version), the diversity across the anti-vaccination groups led to dramatically different vaccination experiences and in-fighting was common. This section goes into detail about how the working-class poor were believed to be the most likely to catch and spread smallpox. These parents were often deemed the most irresponsible if they refused to vaccinate their children. Was the discriminatory practices against those in lower socio-economic brackets the driving force behind compulsory vaccination? Do our elected and appointed officials today view their poorer constituents as dirty disease spreaders?

Section 5 offers a front-row seat into the crude violations against the body that defined early vaccination. Vaccination was widely believed to inflict indescribable pain and suffering in addition to terrifying deformity. It underscores that the original practice was not only unscientific but barbaric in nature.

Jenner’s vaccination procedure was invasive, unsanitary and disfiguring. The procedure involved public inoculators cutting at least 4 lines in the arm of an adult, usually the mother of an infant, with an unsterile blade. Lymph extracted from the underbelly of a cow or from the hoof of a horse, called vaccine matter, was smeared across the wound. Eight days later, the blisters on arm of the mother was scraped, and the pus was inserted directly into the arm of their child.

Though smallpox was a feared disease, the smallpox vaccination itself quickly outpaced that fear.

Section 6 examines the outrage over contamination of the body and the blood which lead to finding natural approaches to contain smallpox outbreaks and prevent the spread of illness. It is emphasized that only sanitary measures, not medication, can truly prevent and cure disease. During that same period, the germ theory was hotly debated, and so was the necessity of vaccination. The anti-vaccination movement was aware of the stakes involved in the promotion of bacteriology.

Pro-vaccinators today retain a fervent belief that the un-vaccinated do not have the right to spread disease. It is the weakest of their arguments. Not only is it wrongly accusatory, the premise does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Our ability to remain disease-free ends when we breach our most important bodily protection: our skin. Vaccination not only fails to protect; it can cause a lifetime of serious disease. 

Section 7 describes the pushback after the British government attempted to resolve the issues around vaccination by allowing conscientious objection. As more and more citizens relied upon this exemption to opt-out of vaccination, the definition of conscience itself came under fire. The vague nature of this exemption and what it meant made it difficult to uphold. Many courts outright challenged the applications. Once again, the poorest were targeted first as being least likely to secure exemptions. In the end, a new law was passed, one that included a medical exemption and allowed for the working class to live a moral life while making conscientious choices for themselves and their families. This law however was the starting point for new debates over a woman’s role in conscientious exemptions.

Conclusion: Bodily Matters covers the anti-vaccination movement from the late 1860’s until 1908 when support for the movement began to wane due to the working class’s satisfaction at their current ability to obtain exemptions. Staunch defenders of personal rights and libertarians understood how the exemptions were merely distraction tactics designed to avert attention away from this issue and onto others. By 1909, the yearly meeting of the National Anti-Vaccination League experienced diminishing attendance and the retirement of its primary lecturer. By 1910, the movement was “largely dead” (Conclusion, Bookshare, digital version). What began as a military-style attack on smallpox infected villages morphed into the rare vaccination of any child against parental wishes. England’s eradication program mostly targeted the poor and working classes. In most cases, vaccination was pushed through coercion; sadly, these practices are still evident in the inner-city vaccination programs of today.

Today, the three prevailing themes of anti-vaccinationists are that vaccines are both unsafe and ineffective, that alternative health practices are preferable, and governmental abuse of power. Defenders of medical freedom maintain that vaccination should always be a choice, never a mandate, which is a violation of civil liberties.

Bodily Matters ends with stating that the democratization of health-care is the achievement of the “modern British state” (Conclusion, Bookshare, digital version). Durbach alludes to personal beliefs often shaped, not only by the times in which one lives, but by a person’s uniquely lived experience. The fight for bodily integrity has been in the limelight for more than 200 years. But as Durbach alludes in the final chapter, that fight exists within an overwhelming expectation that the government will fairly provide for our medical needs. That premise needs to be thoroughly examined.

Bodily Matters is a thorough historical read. A selection of extensive resources including bibliography, newspapers, periodicals, official papers, primary and secondary sources are included. This book, along with Dissolving Illusions by Dr. Suzanne Humphries and Roman Bystrianyk, provides the real historical events leading up to today’s most volatile and contentious issue. Both books are highly recommended as the starting point for vaccine education and awareness.


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Maria Ryan is a freelance content writer. She has contributed to a number of online publications on fitness, nutrition, food, lifestyle, and parenting. She is an avid reader and book reviewer. Her work especially promotes indie authors, getting less-known information into the hands of many.  You can find her additional book reviews at her blog,

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Written by Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, DO. Copyright 2019. All Rights Reserved.