HHH column: The introduction of smallpox vaccination into Jewish communities in the Netherlands by Daniella Zaidman-Mauer

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Daniella Zaidman-Mauer, PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School of Historical Studies (ASH), and lecturer in modern Yiddish history and language at the University of Amsterdam. In this column, Daniella shares part of her research on Ezechiel Joseph Goldsmit, a Jewish physician who, by encouraging and practicing vaccination against smallpox, made a difference to the health of the Jewish Ashkenazi community in Amsterdam.

The introduction of smallpox vaccination into Jewish communities in the Netherlands

Daniella Zaidman-Mauer

Historians of medicine have always considered the history of smallpox inoculation and the cowpox vaccination to be a major watershed in the development of modern medicine in the Western world.[1] In 1797, Edward Jenner published his “Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of Variolae Vaccinae known by the name of Cow Pox”,[2] and with this pamphlet Jenner’s procedure became rapidly known in Europe. Jenner’s pamphlet was translated into six languages, including Dutch, a translation made by the Jewish physician Levie Salomon (Lion) Davids (1771-1820),[3] who at the same time inaugurated the Society for the Advancement of Cowpox Inoculation in Rotterdam by the name of Ne Pestis intret vigila. [4]

In a decree promulgated in 1808, Lodewijk Napoleon, King of Holland, emphasized that the smallpox virus could be prevented through vaccination, which was given to the poor for free.[5] The long-awaited decree of the King for vaccinating the poor did not fall on deaf ears. Dr. Ezechiel Joseph Goldsmit (1779-1829) played a pivotal role in the battle against the smallpox in Amsterdam. Dr. Goldsmit was an established and appointed physician of the Ashkenazi community in Amsterdam. In the midst of a horrible smallpox epidemic in Amsterdam, he fervently acted to encourage vaccination against smallpox among Jewish children. The Jewish doctor requested the help of the sextons of the Jewish community, which led to the publication of the Maskiel El Dal’s[6] Manifesto, urging parents to have their children vaccinated by Dr. Goldsmit.

The following manifesto was published in 1808 by the Ashkenazi community, mostly written in Yiddish and reinforced with Hebrew biblical verses, as was becoming for rabbinical authorities in this period. I will present here just a few lines from the Manifesto in order to grasp its importance in convincing Jewish people of the value of vaccination:

Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble.[7]

It is already common knowledge on the subject of the greatest discovery of physicians, concerning the cowpox inoculation. With the aid of the Creator this inoculation has been successful and has already borne fruit, and not only possesses the quality to save the children (God save them!) from the traveling plague of smallpox. Even more, it, has also been found, it does no harm, as learned physicians confirm, and as our eyes can also daily see, the good benefit thereof […] We have hired a capable physician, Dr. Jehezkel Kassel [Goldsmit], who in a short period of time has vaccinated about 1,700 children, all of whom, with God’s help, have remained free from the aforementioned disease. And we have found at this time that the dreadful disease, due to negligence of parents, who refrain from taking advantage of such good things, has spread within our borders. […] We alert anyone whose capital is insufficient, and would like to have their children vaccinated, to report to the District Authority,[8]who has been appointed for this purpose by the administrators of our association […] to go to the aforementioned doctor, as is also announced every month in all synagogues.

The manifesto in Yiddish. Allard Pierson, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Ros. Ebl. D-14.

From Dr. Goldsmit’s notes and patient’s registrars kept in the Municipal Archives of Amsterdam, we can clearly see how the vaccination rate climbed yearly. Thanks in part to the strong promotion of vaccination in this manifesto, Dr. Goldsmit had earned the trust not only of his peers but of anxious parents as well. Dr. Goldsmit’s lifelong mission was acknowledged and commended by the Jewish community of Amsterdam and by his Christian peer physicians, who saluted and encouraged him.

For an extensive article on this see: Daniella Zaidman-Mauer, “The Key Role of Maskiel El Dal and Dr. E.J. Goldsmit in the Smallpox Vaccination in Amsterdam. ‘Blessed is he that Considereth the Poor’,” Studia Rosenthaliana, Volume 48, Issue 2, Dec 2022, p. 139 – 173. For any questions, you can contact the author at d.mauer@uva.nl.

[1] Razzell, The conquest of smallpox: The impact of inoculation on smallpox mortality in eighteenth century Britain; Rosen, A History of Public Health; Williamson, The vaccination controversy: The rise, reign, and fall of compulsory vaccination for smallpox; Bowman, The vaccinators: Smallpox, medical knowledge, and the “opening” of Japan; Williams, Angel of Death: The Story of Smallpox.

[2] Jenner, An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae.

[3] Levie Salomon (Leon) Davids (1771-1820) obtained a degree at the Faculty of Medicine in Leiden in 1793. Like his father, he had a medical practice in Rotterdam, where he was appointed as a city doctor, for more information on Dr. Davids, see the chapter “In den Ban van Vaccinatie: L.S. Davids en andere Pioneers,” in Rutten, ‘De vreselijkste aller harpijen,’ 209-217; On Jewish doctors in the Netherlands and their role in the smallpox vaccination see also Rodrigues Pereira, “Een Drietal op de Voorgrond Tredende Joodse Geneeskundigen uit de 19de Eeuw,” De Vrijdagavond, I, 16 (July 11, 1924), 244-246; The Dutch translation of Jenner’s pamphlet is: Onderzoek Naar de Oorzaken en Uitwerkselen der Variolae Vaccinae, Eene Ziekte, in de Westelijke Gedeelten van Engeland Ontdekt, Voornaamlijk in het Graafschap Gloucester, en Aldaar Bekend Onder den Naam van Koepokken; Door Edw. Jenner, Med. Doct. In het Nederduitsch Vertaald en met Bijvoegsel vermeerderd, door L. Davids, Med. Doct. Te Rotterdam (Haarlem, 1801).

[4] Ne Pestis intret vigila – Het Rotterdamsch Genootschap ter bevordering van de Koepokinenting; Rutten, ‘De vreselijkste aller harpijen,’, 217.

[5] Rutten, ‘De vreselijkste aller harpijen’, 419.

[6] Maskiel el Dal (Enlightener of the Poor) was a study and mutual aid society which, besides looking after its own members, also took care of those ‘foreign’ poor (i.e., the Ashkenazim) not eligible for poor relief from the Portuguese community. The Maskiel El Dal was revived in the Ashkenaz community by Dr. E.J. Goldsmit, for the purpose of administrating free vaccinations against the smallpox for the children of the Ashkenaz community of Amsterdam; Levie Bernfeld, Poverty and Welfare Among the Portuguese Jews in Early Modern Amsterdam, 211, 264.

[7] Psalms 41:1.

[8] In original ’Wijkmeester’.