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Vaccine: The Modern American Debate

Over the last two decades, American parents have become increasingly concerned about the possible side effects of the many vaccines they are required to have their children undergo. The ensuing debate about the issue was the basis of the 2012 Iago Galdston Lecture at The New York Academy of Medicine, delivered by Mark A. Largent, PhD, author of Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America. The event took place on October 17, 2012 and was sponsored by the NYAM Section on the History of Medicine and Public Health.

In a lively and informative talk that was respectful to both parental concerns and clinical data, Dr. Largent shed light on the modern discourse about the potential link between childhood vaccines and autism. He explained that the question emerged in the late 1990s and was quickly settled within the medical community, with a wave of studies disproving the theory. Nonetheless, parents' fears have persisted, with many citing concerns that vaccines might cause autism, despite the fact that scientists and physicians have strongly rejected any connection. Today, nearly 40% of American parents have refused or delayed at least one routine vaccination for their children.

Dr. Largent described the vaccine-autism debate as a “proxy debate”; behind it, he said, loom a number of serious and sometimes intractable problems with the timing and scale of modern vaccination schedules. The medical community has been unwilling or unable to address the underlying concerns that animate parents' fears, hence many parents have seized on the claim that vaccines cause autism because it reflects many of their anxieties.

“It is a highly charged issue because the stakes are very high, regardless of how you feel,” Dr. Largent said. “I try to be empathetic of the passions that lay behind people’s concerns.”

Dr. Largent concluded his talk with the advice that “the most effective response is respectful engagement.”

Mark Largent is a historian of science and medicine and director of the Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy Specialization (STEPPS) in James Madison College at Michigan State University. His research and teaching focuses on the role of scientists and physicians in American public policy. He has written on the evolution-creation debate, the professionalization of American biology, Darwinism, the history of the American eugenics movement and recent debates over compulsory vaccination. He is the author of Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States (2008) and Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America (2012) and is currently writing a history of Reye's Syndrome.

About the Iago Galdston Lecture

The Iago Galdston Memorial Lecture is an annual event commemorating the contributions of Dr. Galdston to the Academy and to the public understanding of medicine.

Born in Russia in 1895, Dr. Galdston trained in medicine in New York and Vienna. He dedicated his career to the practice of psychiatry and enhancing individual and community health. He joined the New York Academy of medicine in 1928 where he created what became of the Academy's medical information bureau, dedicated to disseminating medical information to the public, and of which he was secretary for 34 years. His column, “Iago Galdston for The New York Academy of Medicine,” was published for many years in 200 newspapers across the country.

On Dr. Galdston's death in 1989 his family created this memorial lecture in his name, dedicated to bringing a distinguished scholar to share his or her insights into the historical, philosophical, and humanistic aspects of medicine.

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Posted on October 25, 2012

Gina Ravosa
Director of Marketing & Communications
The New York Academy of Medicine
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New York, NY 10029
(212) 822-7285


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