“The people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust.” –Abraham Lincoln

Research into the past tends to uncover revelations for today, and a reassurance of the tenet that you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I get pulled into the vortex every time I’m writing historical fiction. It’s especially compelling when I’m answering the siren call of a new book. I tend to start the exploration with a more open mind, ready for whatever surprises the adventure may offer. They don’t have to fit into a preconceived structure, and the discoveries are as thrilling as those on any uncharted blue road trip.

Recently facing just such a journey into the late nineteenth-century for a possible third book in my de Koningh family saga, I made the most unexpected and unnerving discovery. It started with a conversation about a journey. One of the young protagonists holds forth about the evils of travel to the Middle East. His abhorrence for the trip stems from the threat of smallpox, a disease taking so many lives and sweeping relentless through ships placed in quarantine before passengers can disembark (sound all too familiar?). Researching the threat of smallpox lead me to the history of vaccines, and that astounded me with the fact of how early medicine had made the discovery. How could we have had the advantage of inoculation (or variolation as they called it in the 1700s) for over two hundred years, including the formation of the public health system delivering it in the early 1800s, and yet we still find ourselves agonizing over the same issues of acceptance today? The answer is trust, or the lack thereof.

I can easily imagine the challenge to believe in the discovery made by the Turks in 1721, and then Dr. Jenner in 1796 when he worked on the vaccine. There were certainly extraordinary opportunities at the University of Edinburgh in the eighteenth century where the doctor was educated. But the public itself had no such benefit, and the staggering death toll must have been frightening, much as it is with Covid 19 today. I’ve researched some of the people initially supportive of the discovery and found them to be the pioneering spirits you might expect. It was championed by Lady Mary Montagu who had all her children variolated after witnessing the practice in Turkey, and she soon convinced the Princess of Wales to have her own children inoculated.

There will always be people of privilege with the advantage of early exposure to new technology and discoveries, those one might expect to understand what the doctor offered the world and their own families. But how did Dr. Jenner move so quickly to inoculate enough people first in England, and then worldwide to bring smallpox to a complete halt? Yes, he did offer it for free, and he certainly created the forerunner of our modern health system with a clinic in his own town to start the process and train other doctors. But obviously there had to be more to it than that to accomplish such an amazing feat before the science was understood. The key ingredient in Doctor Jenner’s successful process of vaccination was. . . trust. Trust was at the heart of his vaccine’s acceptance in England initially, and then quite quickly throughout the middle east, where many of his disciples were sent to spread the word. His patients in the small village in England where he practiced medicine had complete faith in him, and he understood that there would always need to be practitioners at the local level with enough earned trust to convince the public to believe.

Which is where we are today. The success of a vaccine of world-wide importance lies still in the application of trust rather than pressure, even 300 years after the science was first proven effective. Trust would seem to be a fundamental requirement in basic human collaboration. Without it, people’s minds are closed and with it, we can change the world. History shows us that the current vaccine for Covid 19 is another rung in a continuous ladder to help humanity. I trust we’ll all scramble to safety as quickly as possible saying a prayer of thanks to those who came before and made it possible.

4 Responses to Trust

  1. Although the covid-19 vaccinations came rapidly, the science behind them has been around awhile…comforting as I head to receive my covid-19 vaccine later today. I trust the science.

    • How wonderful! Such a miracle. I’m sure each of us is just as tense (or almost) as the first patients in the 1800s. I remember the first polio vaccine given to all us school children and first responders before others. The science is both unbelievable and completely intuitive at the same time. Congratulations, and thanks for sharing that with us all!!

  2. Thank you for this essay. It makes one recognize that while times and living conditions are constantly changing there is a constant in humanity throughout time. Perhaps the most courageous act we can take is trust. Thank you for depicting the commonness of this trait for advancing the benefit of living full lives.

    • Many thanks for the thoughtful comment, Paul. We do get complacent and stop paying attention to the things right before us. A little digging brings it all up to the surface to remind us. I love hearing from readers like you. All the best, and stay safe.

We welcome you to the conversation! Please share your thoughts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.