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Wrestling the Würgengel : smallpox and inoculation in German society and culture, 1754-1800


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Penschow, JD 2016 , 'Wrestling the Würgengel : smallpox and inoculation in German society and culture, 1754-1800', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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This thesis explores German efforts during 1754-1800 to curb the suffering and death from smallpox, known as the Würgengel (murdering angel) for carrying so many innocent young children to Heaven. It focusses on the period immediately before the introduction of the safer cowpox vaccination, when the highly controversial prophylactic, inoculation, was used in Germany. Inoculation entailed the insertion of a small amount of human smallpox matter into the skin to produce a usually mild smallpox disease that prevented more severe smallpox in future. As the epitome of the rationalist ideology that man should take control of his own destiny and as a novel example of disease prophylaxis, inoculation was closely aligned with the Enlightenment. This thesis shows that enlightened German princes, nobles, and high-profile women encouraged inoculation, yet the princes’ deliberate initiatives to spread inoculation in their territories generally failed and the university-educated cohort of German society drove the efforts to promote the advantages of inoculation and encourage its use, in the face of many obstacles. The intelligentsia which sought to promote behaviours consistent with enlightenment ideology played a prominent role in that regard. Not only as commentators and public officials but also as owners and editors of the new kinds of general journals, and as reviewers, they encouraged a positive public attitude to inoculation. Poets and writers played their part by turning fictional as well as real women who chose inoculation to save their beauty or children from smallpox into ‘inoculation heroines’. Like-minded university professors taught their students about inoculation, and doctors encouraged the practice by reporting inoculation successes and by teaching surgeons the procedures. Many pastors promoted inoculation in their sermons and in articles in various kinds of general journals, in some cases engaging in inoculation themselves. Yet, despite the encouragement to adopt inoculation and concerted efforts to dispel the doubts about it, for myriad different reasons inoculation failed to gain popularity, particularly among the non-elite. Reminders that isolation measures had banished bubonic plague in earlier times fuelled a wave of utopian optimism in the 1790s that a reintroduction of such measures and a united effort could actually eradicate smallpox in the coming century which was being spruiked as a new age of peace and prosperity. The unrealistic goal of eradicating smallpox, considering the lack of new tools, was largely inspired by the revolutionaries in France casting aside the aristocratic governing class in 1789, demonstrating that seemingly impossible dreams could be achieved by a unity of purpose. This thesis shows the various ways in which the Enlightenment and other social, cultural, and political influences which pervaded Germany during the 1754-1800 period jointly shaped the approaches to combating smallpox by inoculation and other measures at that time.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Penschow, JD
Keywords: smallpox, inoculation, prophylaxis, enlightenment, Germany
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Copyright 2016 the author

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