Divining the pox: the controversy over smallpox inoculation in eighteenth-century France

Meyer, Victoria N, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Rosenfeld, Sophia, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Osheim, Duane, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Halliday, Paul, AS-History, University of Virginia
Tsien, Jennifer, AS-French Lit-Gen Linguistics, University of Virginia

Inoculation against smallpox and the hope of preventing fatal disease entered Western consciousness at the dawn of the eighteenth century. Yet, as plans to reduce the threat of smallpox opened up larger religious, political, and medical questions about the body and disease, debate quickly erupted in Europe over the procedure. Participants in this controversy in France included medical practitioners, philosophes, the clergy, popular writers, members of the parlements, and even the royal family. And the dispute spilled out into academic and popular journals, theological essays, government proceedings, court chronicles, journals and personal correspondences, and popular literature, including poems and street songs. The present study contends that the eighteenth-century French quarrel over inoculation is essential to understanding the more general history of Enlightenment France, the development of preventative medicine, and the invention of modem public health.

Previous studies have probed the question of why the French were so slow to accept inoculation. This dissertation asks why the procedure gained support at all. This study explores how inoculation became a component and benefactor of the shifting nature of political authority in the eighteenth century and a primary agent both in the disintegration of traditional medicine and in the reformulation of the relationship between medicine and the French state. I argue that the inoculation question acted as a lynchpin, closely connecting , two broad developments in the eighteenth century. First, inoculation advanced a new concept of medicine as a scientific profession based on reason and the application of quantitative data, aimed at the suppression of disease. Second, it was through the drawn-out and tumultuous public debates over inoculation that the modem concept of public health as a permanent administration of disease in society, made possible through the collaboration of government and medical officials with the oversight of the public, came into being.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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