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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. M. Grandclément1   [May 1874]2

A Monsieur Charles-Robert Darwin. | Un admirateur de son grand savoir et de sa non moins grande probité Scientifique, salut respectueux.

Monsieur,

Dans votre ouvrage: la Descendance de l’homme et la sélection sexuelle, (traduction française) je lis au chapitre V, le passage suivant. “On a raison de croire que la vaccine a préservé des milliers d’individus qui, faibles de constitution, auraient autrefois succombé à la variole.”3

En lisant cette appréciation de la vaccine, formulée avec tant de conviction par un homme d’une aussi grande science, je suis resté confondu. Il faut donc, me suis-je dit avec chagrin, que je n’ai pas étudié cette question sous son véritable point de vue, puisque je n’ai pu trouver aucune raison scientifique qui puisse me faire croire a la vertu prophylactique de la vaccine.

Les promoteurs de cette pratique, croyaient que la variole ne frappait jamais qu’une seule fois le même individu. Le vaccin étant considéré par eux comme l’équivalent d’une variole bénigne, les individus vaccinés devaient être à tout jamais préservés.

On sait à présent qu’une première atteinte de variole ne met pas à l’abri d’une seconde. Je connais des individus qui, après avoir été vaccinés, ont eu deux fois la variole.

Les épidémies quelconques ont en général des allures très-variables, tant sous le rapport de l’intensité des ravages que sous celui des époques de leur apparition et réapparition. Pendant longtemps la variole a donné raison aux vaccinateurs. Il y a quelques années, on remarqua que la préservation n’était ni complète, ni indéfinie, alors on sentit la nécessité de parler de revaccination.

Enfin l’épidémie de 1870–1871 a dû prouver l’impuissance de la vaccine. Pendant ces deux années, la variole a fait périr, en France, plus d’individus vaccinés que le choléra, contre lequel on n’emploie aucune vaccine, n’en a tués en 1853 et 1854.4

On objecte que le plus grand nombre des médecins de tous les pays croient à l’efficacité de la vaccine. Les questions scientifiques de cette nature ne se résolvent pas à la majorité des votants.

On dit aussi que le vaccin apporte dans le sang et dans les tissus des modifications telles que les individus vaccinés perdent pour un temps plus ou moins long, l’aptitude à contracter la variole. Ce n’est là qu’une hypothèse. A-t-on des exemples d’autres modifications qui résistent au mouvement de désassimilation auquel sont soumis les tissus des animaux.

La grande difficulté dans cette question, c’est qu’on ne sait rien de positif sur la manière dont se communique le poison varioleux. Est ce p〈a〉r la peau? est-ce par les poumons? Ou bien se développe-t-il spontanément sous l’influence de causes inconnues jusqu’ici? Car le premier varioleux n’a été infecté par personne.

Enfin, au point de vue général, qui peut affirmer qu’un homme vivant dans telle ou telle condition, aurait été frappé par la maladie, s’il n’avait pas été vacciné?

Ce sont là les principales objections que je m’adresse et auxquelles je ne trouve rien à répondre.

Vous me rendrez un bien grand service si vous pouvez trouver quelques instants de loisir pour faire entrer dans mon esprit la conviction qui est dans le vôtre.

Les hommes de votre valeur sont indulgents pour les faibles, j’ose espérer que vous m’excuserez de venir vous distraire de vos travaux.

Recevez, Monsieur, mes salutations respectueuses. | Docteur Grandclément | de Clermont ferrand (dèpartement du Puy-de-Dôme) | France.

Footnotes

For a translation of this letter, see Appendix I.
The date is conjectured from the relationship between this letter and the letter from J. M. Grandclément, [after 15 June 1874], which refers to a letter sent in May.
Grandclément refers to Descent 1: 168. The passage appeared in the second edition of the French translation (Moulinié trans. 1873–4, 1: 185).
On the smallpox epidemic during the Franco-Prussian war (1870–1), see Smallman-Raynor and Cliff 2002; on cholera in the 1850s, see Snow 1855. On the anti-vaccination movement in 1870s Britain, see Durbach 2005, and Dorothy Porter and Porter 1988.

Translation

From J. M. Grandclément1   [May 1874]2

To Mr Charles Robert Darwin. | An admirer of his great knowledge and his equally great Scientific probity, respectful greetings.

Sir,

In your work: the descent of man and sexual selection, (French translation) I read the following passage in chapter V. “There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.”3

On reading this approval for vaccine, formulated with such conviction by a man of such great science, I was confused. It must be the case then, I told myself with regret, that I have not studied this question from the proper perspective, since I have not found any scientific reason to make me believe in the prophylactic virtue of vaccine.

The promoters of this practice believe that smallpox only ever strikes the same individual once. As vaccine is considered by them to be the equivalent of a benign smallpox, vaccinated individuals ought to be protected forever.

We know nowadays that one attack of smallpox does not protect one against a second attack. I knew individuals who, after being vaccinated, had smallpox twice.

Epidemics of whatever kind generally have a very variable progression, both in terms of the severity of the damage and in terms of the times of their appearance and reappearance. For a long time smallpox declared the vaccinators to be right. A few years ago, people noticed that protection was neither complete, nor indefinite, and then they felt a need to speak of revaccination.

Lastly, the epidemic of 1870–1871 ought to have proven the impotence of vaccine. During these two years, smallpox caused more vaccinated people in France to perish than were killed by cholera, against which no vaccine is employed, in 1853 and 1854.4

It will be objected that the greatest number of physicians in all countries believe in the efficacy of vaccine. Scientific questions of this nature are not resolved by majority vote.

It is also said that vaccine introduces modifications into the blood and tissues such that vaccinated individuals lose the aptitude to contract smallpox for more or less time. That is only a hypothesis. Has one examples of other modifications which resist the motion of disassimilation to which the tissues of animals are subjected.

The great difficulty in this question, is that nothing positive is known of the means by which the variolar poison is communicated. Is it via the skin? Is it via the lungs? Or does it develop spontaneously under the influence of hitherto unknown causes? For the first smallpox sufferer was not infected by anybody.

Lastly, from a general point of view, who can confirm that a man living in such and such a condition, would have been struck by the disease if he had not been vaccinated?

These are the principal objections which I put to myself and to which I can find no response.

You would do me a very great service if you could find some instants of leisure to make the conviction that is in your mind enter my own.

Men of your stature are forgiving of weakness. I hope that you will excuse me for distracting you from your work.

Yours truly, | Doctor Grandclément | of Clermont-Ferrand (Department of Puy-de-Dôme) | France.

Footnotes

For a transcription of this letter in its original French, see p. QQQQ.
The date is conjectured from the relationship between this letter and the letter from J. M. Grandclément, [after 15 June 1874], which refers to a letter sent in May.
Grandclément refers to Descent 1: 168. The passage appeared in the second edition of the French translation (Moulinié trans. 1873–4, 1: 185).
On the smallpox epidemic during the Franco-Prussian war (1870–1), see Smallman-Raynor and Cliff 2002; on cholera in the 1850s, see Snow 1855. On the anti-vaccination movement in 1870s Britain, see Durbach 2005, and Dorothy Porter and Porter 1988.

Summary

He was chagrined to read in Descent CD’s statement that smallpox vaccine has saved thousands of lives. He has found no scientific reason to believe in the prophylactic effect of the vaccine. In epidemic of 1870–1, smallpox killed more vaccinated persons than were killed by cholera, against which there is no vaccine, in 1853–4. Cites the difficulties in arriving at a conclusive proof of vaccine’s effectiveness.

Letter details

Letter no.
DCP-LETT-9436
From
Joseph Marie Grandclément
To
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Clermont-Ferrand
Source of text
DAR 165: 87
Physical description
3pp (French)

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9436,” accessed on 24 August 2019, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-9436

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22

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