There is currently talk in the UK of making school attendance conditional on vaccination. Similar schemes operate in various places around the world now.

Vaccination against smallpox was compulsory in the UK from 1853. An anti-vaccination movement existed, too. There was a royal commission in the 1890s which resulted in the requirement being eased, essentially making vaccination voluntary after 1907.

Why was a royal commission required? Was the anti-vaccine movement so strong? Were there a science-based reasons for the change?

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    @TomasBy In 1907 Smallpox still was far from being eradicated.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 13:52
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    When considering depth rates, remember that at some times in history births were not recorded until a baby had lived for some time. Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 18:24
  • Interesting article on this theme: theconversation.com/…
    – emrys57
    Commented Feb 24, 2020 at 9:41
  • FWIW, this 1896 review of the Royal Commission report in Nature praises its scientific merit and says the findings were largely pro-vaccine: nature.com/articles/055015a0.pdf
    – Brian Z
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 13:25

1 Answer 1


I will refer to the science based claims of the OP questions leaving aside social and political reasons. I think the other answer though factually fair is a little loaded with personal opinions which are not factual. To be precise the risk of severe adverse effects is 1 in a million.

Risk for UK fatal car accidents is 1 in 20000 or according to UK parliament almost 1800 deaths per year although it has come down from much higher.

If all the population of Britain were to be vaccinated there between 60 and 100 people would die. So the risk would seem out of all proportion with the hysteria of the risk. Of course not all people are vaccinated every year so the death toll is much lower. https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7615

On the other hand there is 10 percent to 30 percent risk of death for people who contract smallpox. And a third of all smallpox cases led to blindness. In the 18th century between 10 and 30 percent of all deaths were caused by smallpox. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953618301862


Even in the 19th century with poor hygiene and such benefits overwhelmingly outweighed the risks. See sciencedirect article above.

So to say the benefits outweigh the risks is a little bit like saying Everest is higher than a sand dune by the beach.

So, undeniably the vaccine was a sign of the march of progress. As everything in life it had risks. Some people might be better off not vaccinating if there are specific risk issues.

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    Welcome to History:SE. This appears to only address the last part of the question which asks if there were "science-based reasons for the change". It might be better to edit your answer to make that clear, otherwise it might be flagged for being a commentary on the other answer, and "not an answer" in its own right. Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 14:00
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    Your paragraph 4 implies that almost everyone caught smallpox at some time. Is that right? Plus, does your paragraph 3 refer to modern practices, or to the more hazardous practices of 1890, please? I agree that the answer seems loaded (it was changed radically after I ticked it) but the pressure that lead to the royal commission does seem rooted in real fear of vaccine damage, plus perhaps outrage that the free vaccinations were of very poor quality compared to those available to the wealthy. Thanks!
    – emrys57
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 14:06
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    Fair point. Paragraph 3 refers to modern practices. Paragraph 4 is changed to reflect the risk of death is related to smallpox cases. I am not sure what percentage of the population caught smallpox but if 10 to 30 percent died if they had smallpox and 10 to 30 percent of all deaths were caused by smallpox it would mean a substantial.portion of the population was indeed infected. Feel free to edit anything you think does not reflect this. Thanks
    – Pol
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 0:56
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    Tried to reflect in an edit the comment by sempaiscuba. Let me know whether it is clear now and can stand independently. If not I have no problem moving it as a commentary of the other answer.
    – Pol
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 2:09

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