Unthinking prejudice resulted in the deaths of millions. The stories of Voltaire and Jenner are examples.
The Frenchman Voltaire (1694-1778) tried unsuccessfully to get the French to inoculate children from smallpox. He was a very intelligent member of the Enlightenment, a writer, historian, and philosopher who criticized Christianity and slavery. He was an advocate for civil liberties. He authored some 2,000 books and pamphlets. He is best known for his highly acclaimed novel Candide in which he mocked the thinkers of his time.
His 92-page “Letters Concerning the English” contains essays based on his experiences and observations in England between 1726 and 1729. He tells how the Circassians, Turks, Chinese, and English inoculated children with a small dose of smallpox. The Circassians, for example, were a nation that lived on the northeast shore of the Black Sea. Russians massacred most of the people. From ancient times, they made an incision in the arm of their children before they reached the age of six months. They placed in the incision a pustule, a bit of pus, taken from the body of another child with smallpox. The pustule assured that even if the inoculated child got smallpox later in life, it was very mild and did not kill or disfigure the child as smallpox generally did. In contrast, prejudice against the other nations, many French hated the English, closed the minds of the French and others, resulting in many millions of disfigurements and unnecessary deaths. Some French even called the inoculation process anti-Christian.
After Voltaire’s death, it was not until 1796 that the first smallpox vaccine was developed against the contagious disease. The British doctor Edward Jenner (1749-1823), who pioneered the concept of vaccines, demonstrated that infection with the relatively mild cowpox virus conferred immunity against the deadly smallpox virus. It helped the inoculated person’s body to develop immunity to smallpox. It is estimated that Jenner saved 530 million lives.
Jenner, of course, did not call inoculation anti-Christian. He was a Christian who treasured the Bible and was not prejudiced. Before his death, he stated to a friend: “I am not surprised that men are not grateful to me, but I wonder that they are not grateful to God for the good which He has made me the instrument of conveying to my fellow creatures.”
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