Lafayette and Inoculation

July 19, 2021 Journal

By Richard Ingram, Chair, Lafayette Alliance


A depiction of Edward Jenner inoculating James Phipps

    In Lafayette’s time, the eighteenth century, smallpox killed more people than war.  Inoculation as means of preventing devastating disease was not a given.  It was contentious. 

     Not until May 14, 1796, did Edward Jenner inoculate eight-year-old James Phipps, the gardener’s son, with scrapings from blisters on the hands of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes, who caught cowpox from a cow named Blossom.  Jenner published his first paper on inoculation in 1798.  The term ‘vaccination’ originated from the Latin:  vacca, or cow.

     Twenty years before, spring of 1774, King Louis XV of France was enjoying dinner at the Trianon Palace, Versailles, with his favorite mistress Madame du Barry.  He suddenly became violently ill.  He broke out in blisters.  It was smallpox.  Two weeks later on May 10, 1774, he died.

     Lafayette was there.  He saw it.  It was a gruesome death.  He was sixteen years old.  He had a decision to make.  He knew about inoculation; it was untested, but in his mind the logic of it made sense.   

     Lafayette had a process.  He said, “I read.  I study.  I examine.  I listen.  I reflect, and out of all this I try to form an idea into which I put as much common sense as I can.”

     Victor Frankl wrote a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning.”  He said that between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is freedom, it is the undistracted moment where we choose.

     Lafayette rented a cottage five miles west of Paris in Chaillot.  His wife Adrienne and his mother-in-law Henriette accompanied him, just in case. 

     He had himself inoculated. 

     Good call.  It protected him from the ravages of smallpox he would see in America three years later.

     Lafayette is relevant, even and perhaps especially today.