I Wasn’t Vaccinated for Smallpox

Smallpox vaccine

When I was very young, I was fascinated by people’s vaccination marks on their upper arms.

We moved onto my grandfather’s farm when I was three, and for the first few years we shared the Great Stone House with another couple, Arlene and Victor Gerhart, and their young daughter. And the thing I recall most about Arlene Gerhart (besides that her first name was the same as my mother’s) was she had a very distinctive vaccination mark. 

I didn’t have a vaccination mark, but then I hadn’t started school yet.

But the time came when I was about to start the first grade, and so my mother took me to our then family physician, Dr. Nagle, who duly scratched my upper left arm with a needle.

That’s the thing I seem to recall about the smallpox vaccine; the doctor scratched my skin rather than injecting something into it. The idea was that a scab would form, and when the scab fell off, I’d be vaccinated—with a mark similar to all those I was accustomed to seeing on other people’s arms.

Except, I didn’t get a scab.

So back we went to Dr. Nagle.

“Oh, these things happen sometimes. We’ll just do it again,” said the doc.

I wonder if he charged us for the second scratch? I think doctor’s visits were ten dollars, or even less, in those days, but he would have needed a second dose of the vaccine; but even those were relatively inexpensive. And in those days, Dr. Nagle was a family friend; his son Allen and I had gone to kindergarten together. 

The second scratch didn’t produce a scab either.

Well, third time’s the charm, or so they say, so Dr. Nagle gave me another scratch. “That oughta do it.” 

But it didn’t. No scab, no vaccination scar.

“I’ve heard of cases like this,” said Dr. Nagle. “You must have a natural immunity to smallpox.” 

I wasn’t exactly sure what “natural immunity” meant, but it sure sounded like a good thing. It certainly made me different from all the other kids.

I assume that Dr. Nagle gave my mother some sort of certification that I had met the vaccination requirements of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, because I did get to go to school.

I remember that I felt, well, special, because of my “natural immunity”, but I don’t recall ever bragging about to other kids.

Oh, well.

Anyway, the years passed and eventually I graduated and got a summer job with the Veteran’s Administration. It being a federal government agency, it had its own vaccination requirement. I tried to explain that I had this natural immunity, but they wouldn’t have it. They sent me off to a doctor to get a smallpox vaccination. This was 1967, and smallpox was still a few years from being eradicated.

Although the Veteran’s Hospital where I was prospectively employed was in Lebanon, they sent me to Dr. Courtney in Myerstown. I guess they must have had some sort of contract with him, as I don’t think he charged me for the scratch. Oh, and while I had been hearing about Dr. Courtney for years, this was the one and only time that I recall ever seeing him.

I did try to explain to him that I had natural immunity but he insisted on wasting a vaccine dose on me anyway. I told him him it was a waste of a good vaccine.

Except—this time I got a scab. And eventually a little scar.

I was just looking for the vaccination mark, and I can see it very, very faintly; it’s not anywhere nearly as noticeable as the marks most people get.

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