Benjamin Franklin Lost Son To Smallpox, Regrets Not Inoculating Him

Even 222 years later, Benjamin Franklin is giving us something to ponder.

The Washington Press is reporting that Franklin, writing in his autobiography, included a painful decision he made regarding his then four-year-old son. Francis Folger Franklin, who died due to complications from Smallpox.

Nearly a half-century later, Franklin would write, “In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

At this time, Franklin’s fears did not stem from the dangers with the inoculation. His decision not to inoculate his son was born from the fact that his son was already sick with another undisclosed illness, and the boy’s immune system would not be able to effectively fight off the inoculation, having been weakened.

To be sure, back in the 1700’s, the inoculation was just as potentially dangerous as not being inoculated. is reporting that Franklin was an opponent of the smallpox inoculation to begin with, but later regretted his decision. Still, Franklin had much to fear from deciding either way, since Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine wasn’t created until 1796.

Instead, doctors used a process called variolation, a practice in which a recipient received fluid from a live smallpox carrier, usually in the form of liquid being drawn from a living smallpox pustule. The common method of inoculation used in 1736 required that a string, previously in contact with the pustules of a smallpox victim, was drawn through an incision made in the skin of the person being inoculated.

Variolation essentially gambled on the patient being able to build up a resistance to the smallpox. However, this kind of transferring often led to the recipient dying outright from the disease. It was impossible to control the strength of the disease by limiting the amount drawn from the pustule.

According to the World Health Organization, smallpox killed approximately 1 in 6 people. Variolation killed between 1 in 48 people to 1 in 60 people. Faced with this decision, Franklin made an informed decision. But, by his writing, it seems he came to regret that decision later in life.

In 1759, Franklin co-authored a pamphlet on the smallpox inoculation with London physician William Heberden about the benefits of the variolation. Franklin, while admitting variolation was still dangerous, felt it was better than doing nothing.