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Immunity and (Anti-)Vaccination: Histories, Metaphors, Theories – A Syllabus

The natural body meets the body politic in the act of vaccination, where a single needle penetrates both. – Eula Biss, On Immunity 

In recent years, outbreaks of highly contagious diseases like measles and whooping cough have reached epidemic proportions in the US. Such a resurgence in supposedly eradicated diseases has been attributed to rising rates of vaccine refusal in states like California and Georgia. The anti-vaccination movement gained momentum in part due to a widely-circulated 1998 paper, written by Andrew Wakefield and published in The Lancet. Now widely discredited and retracted, this paper claimed a connection between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and autism. Even despite the discovery of Wakefield’s unethical distortion of experimental data and his revocation of his medical license, many, including high-profile celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Donald Trump, have continued to be public proponents for anti-vaccination. Anti-vaccination communities exploded with the rise of the internet and social media, now home to numerous forums and groups dedicated to the circulation of anti-vaccination resources.

This cultural panic surrounding vaccination is frequently assumed to be a recent phenomenon, yet skepticism about the validity, safety, and value of inoculation bears a much longer history. In fact, the seemingly “new” discourse of anti-autism rampant in anti-vaccination communities hearkens back to popular anxieties about vaccination when it was first popularized in the late eighteenth century in Britain. Edward Jenner’s vaccination became a national practice and ultimately a compulsory one by the middle of the nineteenth century, but this was not universally accepted. Jenner’s opponents mobilized rhetorics of “cow mania” that raised alarm about the use of cowpox potentially reducing the vaccinated to brute beasts. By mid-century, anti-vaccination organizers framed the refusal of vaccination as a citizen’s right and widely deployed gothic rhetoric as a powerful scare tactic. Vaccination has always been not only a medical procedure but a set of images, ideologies, and intentions bound up with nationhood and futurity.

This syllabus draws together the work of historians and philosophers of science and medicine, literary critics, and medical professionals in a field of study Andrew Goffey has recently termed the “immunological turn.” These works reveal the extensive histories behind anti-vaccination as not a monolithic movement but a series of movements connected with other resistance movements against state medicine like anti-vivisection and other alternative health practices like veganism. Furthermore, these works critically engage with the discourses of immunology and public health to understand immunity and vaccination as concept metaphors that have wide-ranging meanings beyond science. For many of the scholars in this syllabus, scientific knowledge about the immune system and vaccination are not value-neutral; rather, it is permeated by social and cultural assumptions about selfhood, identity, and health. Rather than reducing anti-vaccination to only pseudoscience or conservatism, the “immunological turn” forces us to attend to the historical conditions, discourses, and political investments that animate these movements in our present.


Eula Biss. On Immunity: An Inoculation. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.

Ed Cohen. A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body. Durham: Duke UP, 2009.

James Colgrove. State of Immunity: The Politics of Vaccination in Twentieth-Century America. Berkeley: UC Press, 2006.

Elena Conis. Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2015.

Nadja Durbach. Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907. Durham: Duke UP, 2004.

Roberto Esposito. Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life. Cambridge: Polity, 2011.

Tim Fulford and Debbie Lee, “The Beast Within: Vaccination, Romanticism, and the Jenneration of Disease,” Literature, Science, and Exploration in the Romantic Era: Bodies of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 198–227.

Donna Haraway. “The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Constitutions of Self in Immune System Discourse.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 203-230.

Jacob Heller. The Vaccine Narrative. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2008.

Peter Hotez. Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician, and Autism Dad.Baltimore: JHU Press, 2018.

Andrea Kitta. Vaccinations and Public Concern in History: Legend, Rumor, and Risk Perception. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Anna Kirkland. Vaccine Court: The Law and the Politics of Injury. New York: NYU Press, 2016.

Mark A. Largent. Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America. Baltimore: JHU Press, 2012.

Emily Martin. Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Gareth Millward. Vaccinating Britain: Mass Vaccination and the Public Since the Second World War. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2019.

Seth Mnookin. The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Paul Offit. Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccination Movement Threatens Us All. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

—. Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. New York: Columbia UP, 2008.

Andrea Rusnock. Vital Accounts: Quantifying Health and Population in Eighteenth-Century England and France. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.

Alfred Tauber. The Immune Self: Theory or Metaphor? Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Travis Chi Wing Lau completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania and is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include 18th- and 19th-century British literature, the history of medicine, medical humanities, and disability studies. His academic writing has been published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Romantic Circles, Digital Defoe, Disability Studies Quarterly, and English Language Notes. His creative writing has appeared in Wordgathering, Glass, The New Engagement, Nat. Brut, Matador Review, Impossible Archetype, Hematopoiesis Press, and Rogue Agent. His chapbook, The Bone Setter, was recently published with Damaged Goods Press. He currently serves as an editor for The Deaf Poets Society and a reviews poetry for publications like Up the Staircase Quarterly and Tupelo Quarterly.

5 replies on “Immunity and (Anti-)Vaccination: Histories, Metaphors, Theories – A Syllabus”

Thanks for this syllabus! One more article to add is Kaufman’s “Regarding the Rise in Autism: Vaccine Safety Doubt, Conditions of Inquiry, and the Shape of Freedom.”

I would add Jennifer Reich’s excellent article “Neoliberal Mothering and Vaccine Refusal” as well as her book Calling the Shots.

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