Today many people believe that vaccines cause autism. Is there a historical equivalent to this conspiracy theory, in that people believe something to be harmful when it has been proven benign by authorities? Fluoride comes to mind, but I'm looking for something further back in history.

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    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 13:55

10 Answers 10


Actually, the exact same thing happened in Brazil, but with a real uprising: Vaccine Revolt (Wikipedia).

This is a matter of great discussion in Brazilian history, with most historians arguing that it was not an anti-vax revolt, but a revolt about the first mandatory thing government imposed during unstable political times.


My personal favorite is the early history of the lighting rod.

Lightning likes to try to ground itself via the tallest, pointiest thing around. This means that because of their architecture, Christian churches have always been particular favorites of lightning.

This is obviously awkward theologically, so the theology that developed was that lightning was actually God expressing his displeasure (and/or demons in the air).

In 1752 Benjamin Franklin proved that lightning contained electricity, and invented the lightning rod. This was a great boon to civilized mankind everywhere, and was immediately adopted, right?

Well, no. What actually happened was that religious people worried that if you thwarted God in this way, he'd have to express his displeasure at you some other way. The other traditional act of God is of course earthquakes, so many people seriously insisted that lightning rods caused earthquakes(pdf). For decades thereafter, if an earthquake or some other catastrophe happened, and there was a structure with a lightning rod nearby, it was blamed (and often torn down by angry mobs).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 15:22

In Korea: Fan Death

(dates to the 1920s)

In US and Europe: Poisonous Tomatoes

(dates to their discovery in the New World, but not clear if/when there were "authorities" stating the truth)

Reasons cited for belief:

  • Ill effects of acidic tomatoes leaching poisonous lead from pewter plates were ascribed to the tomatoes rather than the lead.
  • Belief that taxonomic relation to the Deadly Nightshade plant meant that tomatoes were poison too.
  • Belief that worms that infested tomatoes were deadly.
  • Fan death is interesting, but dates from roughly the same era as the fluoride scare. It would be good if you could expand on the poisonous tomatoes. Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 15:46
  • There was the Invasion of the Killer Tomato's movie...although I don't recall a particularly historic angle to it....quite the opposite actually. Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 16:13
  • You also have the rather infamous syphillis experiments if you're looking for something proven in the experimental realm in the name of science and in a controlled environment. Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 16:14
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    Honestly... If eating tomatoes from your plates kills you, but your plates are otherwise fine, how important is it, really, to include tomatoes in your diet?
    – Tin Wizard
    Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 18:52
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    Poisonous tomatoes are a perfectly reasonable belief: every other part of the plant, including the unripe fruit, is poisonous.
    – Mark
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 17:57

There is a belief which for want of a better term I will call Draft Theory. This is the belief that a draft, defined as a stream of air blowing on the body from one direction, such as from an open window, is a direct cause of injury and disease. This belief is often held to the exclusion of Germ Theory. While modern medical science acknowledges some adverse health effects of cold air, it does not support Draft Theory.

This belief was common in the United States well into the 20th century but is now forgotten except in its mildest forms. Expansive versions of this belief are still widespread in Germany, Eastern Europe, and is said to figure in traditional Chinese medicine.

Those who fear drafts strictly avoid opening a doors or windows on opposite sides of a room or vehicle so as not to create a cross breeze. They routinely sit in stifling apartments, cars, trains, and buses because it is impossible to properly ventilate a space without creating a cross breeze. Children are thought to be particularly succeptible. It is common to close all windows and doors even during a heat wave when a baby is brought into a room.

Drafts are thought to cause colds, even in July. But their evils do not end there. Standing in a stream of flowing air is thought to cause inflammation. Drafts are routinely blamed for back pain, ear infections, partial facial paralysis, and even stroke.

There is a great deal of confirmation bias at work. If someone "puts himself at risk", such as by sleeping with an open window in September, and he does not get sick, he was lucky. If someone takes no perceived risks and still gets a cold, perhaps he got chilled but does not remember it.

Few in Eastern Europe have ever heard these views disputed. They believe that they have personally been made ill by drafts and will tell anecdotes of people struck down by grievous illness after standing in drafts. Those who question fear of drafts are treated condescendingly and confidently informed that "any doctor" will confirm that drafts are dangerous.

Role of the Press

The danger of drafts is frequently mentioned in the press. Here are a few excerpts from an article by Tatyana Ressina, a health columnist for Arguments and Facts, a major Moscow weekly newspaper:

How NOT to Beat the Heat? A Small Draft is More Dangerous than Taking a Dip in a Hole in the Ice

The subject of drafts is especially timely during heat waves. How should we view drafts? Fear them or...

"I do not fear drafts" proudly declares one half of mankind gazing with something just short of contempt on the other half which is sealing up the windows and taking a seat as far as possible from the air conditioner. So how ought we to view drafts, should we be afraid of them or not? The subject of drafts is especially timely during heat waves when people create artificial drafts using fans and other devices. As a result an ironic situation arises: outside it is a hundred-and-five, but people's noses are running...

One woman I know who is a doctor likes to pronounce judgement thus: "Better to leap right into a hole in the ice than to sit in a draft by the window." This is a joke of course, bathing in a hole in the ice is extremely dangerous. But there is a great deal of truth in this joke, because we are talking about the overall effect of cold. And in that sense over-chilling of a small area of the body, as occurs in a draft, is significantly more dangerous than what happens when cold acts on the whole body at once. Perhaps someone finds this paradoxical and some might treat this with skepticism, but it is really true. Let us examine the matter.

This is followed by four-paragraphs in which she asserts that our body's defense mechanisms against "cold" are not activated by the "cold" air from the open window (remember, the window is open because we are experiencing a heat wave) because it blows on only a small part of the body. For reasons which "for now no one knows" we do not shiver and do not even get goose bumps. The defense mechanisms which would kick in if the whole body were chilled fail to perceive the draft as dangerous. In contrast our columnist definitely does. She wraps her article up with these words:

But it in the end it is not important what the defense mechanisms are thinking. What is important is that the cold from the draft penetrates unimpeded deeper and deeper into the body. And whatever it meets on its way it "freezes". If a draft blows on the ear, you can get otitis. If the draft hits the lumbar, you can expect radicular pain or inflammation of the kidneys. If it blows on the chest, the bronchi can be weakened. What will happen in each specific case is difficult to predict. But after a draft a disease is significantly more likely than after a walk in the cold air. This is the truth. So keep out of drafts. And please, do not laugh at those who are afraid of them.

When health columnists of the mainstream media are offering scientific-sounding explanations of Draft Theory, it is no wonder the general public continues to believe that it is part of modern medicine.

Drafts--Cold by Definition

We may wonder how anyone could think that the human body needs a defence mechanism against damaging heat loss in a Moscow apartment during a heat wave. This is due to a tendency of draft believers to conflate cooling and chilling. As a consequence they see little difference between the breeze from the window that removes excess heat from a sweating body during a heat wave and fridgid winter air which depletes body heat faster than it can be replaced.

Drafts and "True Colds"

This tendency to see all cooling as chilling and hence potentially dangerous plays into a accompanying fear. This is the idea that if one gets chilled, one can catch a cold. It is believed that allowing ones hands or feet to get cold to the touch puts one at risk even if the overall body temperature is maintained. The idea that colds are caused by a virus is mostly ignored. Even when the existence of viral illnesses with similar symptoms is admitted, it is still held as obvious that "true colds" are caused by cold (after all, they are called "colds"). A true cold is thought to be an inflammatory process which arises as "cold" irritates body tissues. If someone starts to sniffle, that is taken as sufficient proof that the process has started. Windows must be closed before it gets worse. That may mean sitting in a stiffing room, but that is the price one pays for health.

Of course, there is a real statistical connection between the onset of winter and the frequency of the viral infections of the upper respiratory tract which we call "colds". Modern medicine suggests a number of possible factors including the opening of schools in September, possible cracking of the mucus membranes when humidity drops, and even that breathing frigid outdoor air may cool the inside of the nose enough to locally reduce immunity.

Though this last idea admits that cold temperatures may have something to do with colds after all, it is not the same as the "true cold" concept. In the modern medical theory mentioned in the previous paragraph the cold is profound and objectively real, it can be measured with a thermometer. The cold air plays directly the the sensitive tissues to be infected by the primary cause of the disease, a microbe.

In contrast in "true cold" theory the "cold" is not necessary objective cold at all. It could be something as mild as the sensation of a light breeze cooling the perspiring body. The superficial cooling supposedly moves down through the skin in waves into the interior of the body. This theory invokes no infectious agents. The cold is thought to directly initiate the disease process by irritating and inflaming body tissues.

People who believe that colds come from getting chilled and that drafts are highly dangerous are generally only dimly aware of germ theory. For them chills and drafts are ready explanations of the otherwise inexplicable. When they learn about germ theory, they soften or modify their position, but seldom entirely abandon it. They may admit that some colds are viral (hence the need for the term "true cold") or they will argue that sitting in a draft makes one susceptible to viral infection.

Role of Medical Authorities

Some doctors are speaking out against fear of drafts. For example Dr. Komarovskiy, a well known pediatrician and popular writer on the health of the child, discourages passing fear of drafts on to the next generation. In his book The Start of Your Child's Life he writes:

My dear people! It is you and I who have to fear drafts because our parents protected us from these things at all cost. But what has this got to with our children? We do not want to go to extremes, but the constant cries of "Hurry and shut the door!" do not lead to anything good. The child has to fear that which is unfamiliar. And it is impossible to go through life without once meeting a draft. It is better then to get acquainted with it in infancy, having shed fear, than as a staid grown up to shout out in the bus: "Close the window, there is a draft!"

His advice is widely read and quoted. There are many postings in Russian language Internet forums about conflicts between young people who are raising their children "Komarovsky-style" and older relatives who shout: "The window! There's a child here!"

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    @VladimirF So you are suggesting that if I had ever had Osteochondrosis, I would know that it is caused by sitting in drafts. Can you demonstrate that this is a mainstream medical view? Can you cite medical researchers (writing in any language) who favor this view? If not, then my example is valid since this would be a widespread belief which is not supported by authorities on the subject.
    – David42
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 0:48
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    @VladimirF I think you have hit on how this belief works and why it can seem obvious to people in one culture and absurd to people in another culture. People in draft cultures have been told that these discomforts are the first sign of damage and that they must get out of the draft as quickly as possible. They are hyper aware of drafts and so when they do get sick, they can always remember a draft on that part of the body that explains it. People in other cultures are only mildly bothered by cold drafts and find warm drafts pleasant. They have experimented on themselves and not gotten sick.
    – David42
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 14:24
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    @VladimirF The NYT article is interesting since it provides a possible explanation for why we get more colds in winter. Breathing chilly outdoor air cools the inside of the nose. But does this provide a basis to believe one can get a cold from sitting next to an open window in a train in July?
    – David42
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 14:43
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    Cool! Italy is not alone then! bbc.com/news/magazine-15987082
    – lib
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 21:33
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    Well, I've been sitting in a draft every day for a few hours for the past month or so (my dorm room gets a great cross-breeze) and I have yet to suffer any injury or illness whatsoever. Except for pulling a muscle in my back, but that was while I was outside, not in the draft. Anecdotal evidence? Sure, but so is most/all of the evidence against drafts.
    – anon
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 4:26

From the 1930s.

enter image description here

Mentioned on Huffington Post. The older blog referred to in the HP article is no longer available, to so prevent the same thing from happening to the HP article, here's the relevant text (no copyright infringement intended):

The comic above was posted to Reddit today with the caption, “History repeats itself. Anti-vac comic from the 1940s.” According to an older post on Super I.T.C.H, a blog devoted to comic history, the illustration comes from a 1930 cartoon booklet titled “Health in Pictures.”

A commenter on the same thread pointed to another cartoon by satirist James Gillray, this one dating back to the early 19th century. In it, British citizens receiving a cowpox inoculation in 1802 can be seen panicking about the vaccine’s rumored effects (allegedly reported by opponents of the vaccination), namely that individuals were developing bovine features.

--Katherine Brooks, Huffington Post 2015/02/03

enter image description here


The use of anaesthesia during labour was highly contentious, partly on medical grounds, partly on religious grounds - women were meant to suffer during childbirth - certainly in the opinion of (male) doctors! Queen Victoria - who hated childbirth and wasn't that keen on babies - pioneered its use, against most medical opinion of the time.

The Lancet denounced its use: “In no case could it be justifiable to administer chloroform in a perfectly ordinary labour; but the responsibility of advocating such a proceeding in the case of the Sovereign of these realms would, indeed, be tremendous.” - Queen Victoria uses chloroform in childbirth, 1853.

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    Man, The Lancet seems to have its fair share of bad articles. Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 21:52
  • In the Netherlands, it's still only used when the mother can't handle the pain anymore. Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 7:10
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    modem pain killers and anaesthesia have a much lower risk then chloroform, also also the effect lasts for less time and is more controllable. Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 10:30
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    Chloroform can have nasty side-effects, especially if the dosage is not calculated perfectly or if the patient has any respiratory problems. I guess in the 1850ás it was even more dangerous.
    – vsz
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 19:00
  • @vsz Yes, I'm sure, but not sure there was an alternative?
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 23:42

You might consider the first smallpox vaccine. From Voltaire's "Letters on the English":

"IT is inadvertently affirmed in the Christian countries of Europe that the English are fools and madmen. Fools, because they give their children the small-pox to prevent their catching it; ; and madmen, because they wantonly communicate a certain and dreadful distemper to their children, merely to prevent an uncertain evil." Letter XI—On Inoculation.

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    Voltaire, who died in 1778, was writing about smallpox inoculation. Smallpox vaccination was introduced in 1796. Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 1:37
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    @kimchi lover: To the non-pedant, they are one and the same. Innoculation used a weak form of the smallpox virus, Jenner's vaccination used the related cowpox. Even today, we have vaccines such as MMR that use weakened live virus: medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002024.htm
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 5:17
  • That may be (both have something to do with viruses) , but to the historically minded, there is a difference. To Jenner and his contemporaries the one (inoculation) was a folk practice introduced to Europe from Turkey and the other, (vaccination with a virus related to and perhaps not derived from smallpox) was a new procedure subjected to a form of efficacy and safety trials. All this long before the modern facts of virology were known and long before Koch's bacteriological paradigm of infectious diseases was available. Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 11:51
  • @kimchi lover: I fail to see the difference. Perhaps I'm looking at it from a too technical perspective. But in any case, the technical details are really irrelevant to the question of instances of mass hysteria similar to today's anti-vaccine craze.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 10, 2018 at 3:36
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    It's a question of one's level of tolerance to errors of detail. The two treatments are based on different organisms, were developed at different times and places, and have vastly differing risks associated with them. Inoculation, which Voltaire decried, was pretty risky: not only could it kill the inoculee but it could also start an uncontrolled outbreak of smallpox. Voltaire's words only look silly when read in the context of misunderstandings such as yours. In fact the decision to inoculate was, and was seen at the time, to be a calculated risky risk. Commented Feb 10, 2018 at 13:48

There was a peasant revolt in the Habsburg Empire in the 1830's, mainly in Galicia and Northern Hungary, caused by peasants believing a cholera outbreak was a deliberate attempt by the government and / or the nobles to eradicate the poorer social classes.

Despite being almost 200 years ago, it has many similarities with modern conspiracy theories (with the exception that it turned really violent, requiring the intervention of the army to restore order). Many people believed it, even if a simple question "why would the nobles want to murder the peasant class, do they want to work on the farms by themselves?" could have blown giant holes in their theory.

It also happened in several other countries.


The case I have in mind is not as drastic as the others but was one of the first large scale "manually spread health disinformation" in France.

In the 80's a leaflet supposedly authored by the Villejuif Hospital listed food additives and their impact on health.

enter image description here (source)

The most dangerous one was E330, which is citric acid (no danger to consumption in normal quantities).

It was being passed from hand to hand, photo- or poly-copied (the quality was decreasing in time, some of the ones I saw were barely readable). Being a kid in the 80's, I still remember E330 being a toxic additive and recall my and other parents closely looking for it on the food labels.

It recently resurfaced, 40 years later, probably for the next generation :)


There is a common belief among auto mechanics (at least here in the US) that if an auto battery is placed on a concrete floor, the concrete will somehow discharge it and quite possibly ruin it. New mechanics are instructed to put a wooden board between the battery and the concrete.

This belief is similar in structure to the vaccine scare. The evidence of harm is purely anecdotal. Stories are told of batteries thought to be good which were removed from cars, placed on concrete floors, and later found to be bad. But correlation is not causation. Cars brought into auto shops frequently have weak batteries which will only work if they are charged every day.

It is similar to the stories of children who showed signs of autism shortly after being vacinated. Children get a round of vacines at about the time when their behavior develops enough that we can see whether it is autistic or not.

As in the vaccine scare, there is a distinct lack of expert support for the popular claim. The claim that the damp concrete is conductive and that it "shorts out" the battery is mumbo-jumbo. Shorting the battery requires touching the terminals. Further, batteries spend their service life in metal battery trays which are far more conductive than concrete.

This has led to a great deal of debate on the Internet. Experiments have failed to demonstrate faster discharge, electrical engineers have criticized the theory, and battery manufacturers have denied that their batteries can be damaged in this way.

There is now wider acceptance (at least on the Internet) that this belief is false, though some still insist that it was true once with batteries of a different design. The explanations offered are nearly as far fetched, but since nobody has any of these batteries to test, they cannot be refuted absolutely.

So this kind of belief is not limited to matters of human health. It is part of a natural human tendency to see distressing events small and large as the product of a single avoidable mistake.

  • I do wonder, though, why all the battery trays I've seen in the last few decades are made of plastic, or have the battery sitting a plastic tray which sits on metal supports.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 17:15
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    @jamesqf Until recently they were metal. Plastic is used nowadays because it is more resistant to spilled acid.
    – David42
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 21:45
  • -1 The question was not simply "list some common myths", but about conspiracy theories that either an illness or its cure was a man-made poison used by the government to eradicate part of the population, or at least the cure having harsh side effects deliberately hidden from the population.
    – vsz
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 4:08
  • @vsz The question asks for examples which are similar to the vaccine debate in the following two respects 1) a widespread belief that something is harmful, and 2) "authorities" (i.e., experts on the subject) disagreeing. Though the OP labels the vaccine scare a "conspiracy theory", beliefs of this type do not depend on conspiracy theories. Those come later when the believers try to explain why the experts disagree. My answer is valuable because it shows that such disagreements are not limited to matters of human health.
    – David42
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 14:38
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    @vsz Thank you for looking at the revised version. I do not think the OP meant to exclude historical precedents where a conspiracy element is absent.
    – David42
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 18:09

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