November 20, 2021

The Anti-Vaccination Movement of 1918

Ad for Election Day, 1918

“Arizona has a compulsory vaccination law, but it has long been a dead letter,” the Citizen wrote. “There has been so much opposition to it that public health officers have never tried to enforce it.” That was until the Spring of 1918 when Dr. WO Sweek, Secretary of the state board of health, decided it was necessary to require children to be vaccinated in order to attend school.

One basic objection was the requirement for parents to bear the cost. Another was barriers to rural schools that “would have to make a trip of about a hundred miles to find a physician.” Additionally, parents had a scant 15 days to comply.

One father expressed his concerns in a letter to the editor: “I do not wish to argue the merits of vaccination, although I cannot refrain from pointing out that medical men are not themselves in accord as to its advisability as a general measure; but I do wish to emphasize the fact that many cases of impaired health and even of death follow a general vaccination… Even with our modern, rigid oversight and inspection of the sources of the vaccines, the risk of unintentional infection is not wholly eliminated.” The writer suggested that it would be worth paying the $50 fine (a whopping $974 today,) instead of having his children vaccinated.

“A growing number of citizens of the state do not believe in it and consider that in many cases it does more harm than good,” the Citizen observed.

One news media outlet, the Arizona Daily Star was so antagonistic toward the requirement that Sweek and Governor Hunt reported the periodical to the (WW1) war department for investigation.

The Tucson Citizen also began to editorialize for the repeal of the compulsory vaccination law--“Sweek and his threats notwithstanding," the paper declared. "We do not believe the men of Sweek’s own profession will back him up in his arrogant threats against the freedom of the press, and the rights granted every American under the Constitution.”

“We think the necessity for the wholesale vaccination order has not been shown,” the Star wrote in response. “There seems to be a general lack of understanding for the necessity of the state-wide vaccination program as a result.” Although exact numbers are not known, probably less than half of Arizona's children got the vaccine and the state declined to press charges on such a large number of her citizens.

Sweek’s hopes for the mass-vaccination of Arizona’s children were dashed and his edict carried no retribution. “The fifteen days in which all school children were to be vaccinated has already passed, but no children have been barred from school for inability to show a new vaccination scar,” the Citizen reported.

In mid-April, Sweek announced a change of plans, extending the vaccination deadline to 10 days following the dismissal of school (circa June 1,) “to avoid disrupting the schools and thus antagonizing the school’s authorities.” To overcome one objection, the Pima county health director “decided to offer vaccinations to the children free of charge” to those parents were unable to afford it.

Meanwhile, while lobbying the public for compulsory vaccinations, Sweek revealed that in the first 4 months of 1918, there were 300 cases costing Arizona $300,000 ($5.8 million today). “It is unfortunate that the informative propaganda regarding…vaccination was not inaugurated by Dr. Sweek…before he promulgated his order requiring compulsory vaccination,” the Star believed. “His experience should have taught him that coercive health measures…bring out the maximum of unreasoning opposition.”

By May, several “Public School Protective Leagues” sprung up across the state “for the purpose of opposing compulsory vaccinations." These were “modeled after one in California,” and “its object [was] to protect the public schools from medical…exploitation. 

"You are invited to become a contributing member,” the Arizona Republican disclosed, “and help initiate a new law to repeal the present compulsory vaccination law.” The membership cost was one dollar ($19 today). 

Infuriated, Sweek began having parents arrested and the Public School Protection League vowed “to fight all prosecutions brought by Sweek.”

Story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's visit to Prescott, AZ in September 1932 before traveling to the Greenway Ranch.

Come June, the League had drafted its promised petition, which would come to be known as Proposition 9, repealing compulsory vaccinations. Signatures to place the measure on the November ballot were collected at a fast pace.

In the midst of the public pressure, Sweek’s popularity plummeted. He resigned his state position to join the army and on June 18, he left to go to France as a First Lieutenant in the medical corp. He was replaced by Dr. Orville H Brown, who was Sweek’s partner in private practice prior to Sweek taking the state job. Brown believed as Sweek did which meant the state’s policy would remain unchanged. Despite Sweek’s resignation, the enforcement of compulsory vaccinations would still be attributed to him by the newspapers and the public. 

In July, with “the backing of the health administration in Washington,” the state doubled its efforts to bar children from school in the upcoming year if they were not vaccinated. The Star explained that parents would not be prosecuted under the compulsory vaccination law, “but a way has been found to make delinquent parents toe the line. Each child must show a vaccination scar as an admission certificate” to school. Authorities made it clear however, that parents could be charged under the truancy law if they did not send their children to school because of the vaccination issue. This time all parents were expected to absorb the cost of the medication.

“Many parents will keep [their children] at home, rather than have them vaccinated and give them instruction [there],” the Citizen reported. Until the November election came, “a number of parents arrang[ed] to send their children to private schools.”

When Election Day arrived in November, Proposition 9 passed in Prescott, Yavapai County, and the state by a majority of less than 2%. The Public School Protective League had won the day, but not without consequence. For the death, despair and destruction that was smallpox would continue to plague the United States for nearly 30 additional years.


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Tucson Citizen, 4/7/1918; Pg. 5, Col. 1.

Arizona Daily Star, 3/24/1918; Pg. 4, Col. 2.

Arizona Daily Star, 3/26/1918; Pg. 3, Col. 5.

Arizona Daily Star, 3/28/1918; Pg. 4, Col. 5.

Tucson Citizen, 4/11/1918; Pg. 9, Col. 1.

Arizona Daily Star, 4/9/1918; Pg. 4, Col. 5.

Tucson Citizen, 4/14/1918; Pg. 4, Col. 1.

Tucson Citizen, 4/17/1918; Pg. 2, Col. 3.

Arizona Daily Star, 4/18/1918; Pg. 2, Col. 4.

Arizona Daily Star, 5/4/1918; Pg. 8, Col. 2.

Arizona Republican, 5/19/1918; Pg. 12, Col. 5-7.

Tucson Citizen, 5/28/1918; Pg. 2, Col. 1.

Arizona Republican, 6/12/1918; Pg. 3_c3.

Arizona Republican, 6/18/1918; Pg. 8, Col. 3.

Coconino Sun, 6/28/1918; Pg. 3, Col. 1.

Arizona Daily Star, 7/24/1918; Pg. 4, Col. 5.

Tucson Citizen, 9/14/1918; Pg. 2, Col. 4.

Arizona Daily Star, 5/10/1918; Pg. 4, Col. 1.,_Proposition_9_(1918)

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