Clowes: ‘Ben Franklin’s bitter regret that he didn’t immunize his 4-year-old son against smallpox’
Five weeks had passed since the death of Benjamin Franklin’s son, and rumors were swirling. Four-year-old Francis “Franky” Franklin had died after being inoculated for smallpox, the rumor went, and now his pro-inoculation father was trying to hide it.
The gossip reached such a point that on Dec. 30, 1736, the grieving father, then 30, confronted it in the pages of his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.
“Inasmuch as some People are, by that [rumor] … deter’d from having that Operation perform’d on their Children,” he wrote, “I do hereby sincerely declare, that he was not inoculated, but receiv’d the Distemper in the common Way of Infection.”
It must have been hard to admit — Franklin had long advocated inoculation as a “safe and beneficial practice” — that his own son had gone unprotected.
“I intended to have my Child inoculated,” he explained, “as soon as he should have recovered sufficient Strength from a Flux [diarrhea] with which he had been long afflicted.”
More than five decades later, in his autobiography published posthumously, he said he had “long regretted bitterly, and still regret” that he had chosen to wait.