Monday, February 15, 2021

Shaw and Smallpox

I enjoyed many articles in the most recent issue of the Shaw journal, but I found Bernard Dukore's piece "Bernard Shaw and the Smallpox Epidemic of 1901-2" particularly engrossing.

Dukore points out that during London's deadly smallpox outbreak at the start of the 20th century, Shaw was writing his masterful drama Man and Superman. The extraordinarily long play, which also includes a prologue and and epilogue, seems meant more for reading than actual performance. Could it be that the social distancing required by the epidemic nudged the author towards envisioning something more literary than theatrical? Dukore doesn't consider that possibility explicitly, but he brings up a number of other fascinating points.

As a vestryman for the borough of St. Pancras in London, Shaw worked to try to prevent the smallpox outbreak through improved sanitation. For Shaw, whose opposition to vaccination grew and hardened over the years, the only way to prevent outbreaks of disease was to increase hygiene. When Shaw had been inoculated as a child, people believed that a single vaccination produced life-long immunity to smallpox. It doesn't, and in the smallpox outbreak of 1881, he caught the disease. It scarred his face, and might have been the reason for his growing his trademark beard.

Shaw's hero was Florence Nightingale, who had recognized the importance of clean air and water and striven for better sanitation and improved drainage. Dukore observes that health policy shouldn't be a question of hygiene or vaccination, since both are important, but Shaw single-mindedly pursued one strategy while foolishly dismissing the other. To his credit, though, the vestryman worked to secure funds for increased inspections, writing to the chairman of the borough's health committee: "It is better to frighten London now than to bury it next year."

On September 21st, 1901, Shaw had a letter published in The Times warning of a coming epidemic of smallpox. The letter did not argue against vaccination, but called it irrelevant, since "the ordinary Londoner, who does not quite know what to think about vaccination, wants neither an aggravated epidemic nor a mitigated one; he wants no epidemic at all." Shaw argued against closing schools, since poor students would just be spending more time in their overcrowded and unsanitary homes. He called for increased inspections, though, and legal sanctions for poor ventilation.

By the beginning of 1903, close to 10,000 people had contracted smallpox in London. Shaw's suggestion of frequent inspections was a good one, but the problem was that overworked inspectors weren't quite sure what they were looking for anyway. Increased ventilation certainly would have slowed the spread of the disease, though inoculation would have, too.

As time went on, Shaw became increasingly hostile to both vaccines and the medical profession in general. His 1906 play The Doctor's Dilemma poured vitriol on physicians. Perhaps his own failure to stop a deadly smallpox outbreak helped feed his anger at others who had likewise failed to protect the public.