How New York Vaccinated Six Million People Against Smallpox in One Month

Public health officials didn't have to worry about anti-vaxxers back then

smallpox vaccine nyc 1947
New Yorkers receive free smallpox vaccinations after twelve cases were reported in the state, April 1947.
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As countries across the world begin to roll out COVID-19 vaccines to the highest-risk groups, public health officials have faced questions about just how long it’ll take to get the majority of the general public vaccinated. As a new piece in The New York Times points out, there’s precedent for a large number of people getting vaccinated in a short period of time: back in 1947, six million New Yorkers got a shot to protect them from smallpox in just one month.

But before you get too excited about New York City potentially rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine with similar speed, it’s important to remember the 1947 smallpox vaccine was delivered under much different circumstances.

“In 1947, the city was able to act alone, as opposed to navigating a complicated relationship with the governor of New York and the federal government,” Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told the Times. “The city was able to say, ‘We’re going after this,’ and then make it happen.”

Dr. David Oshinsky, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Polio: An American Story pointed out to the publication that back in the ’40s, people trusted science more and were less wary of vaccines in general. “This was the height of polio in the United States,” he said. “People had a much better sense of the impact of infectious disease. They saw it all the time, and they were rightly fearful. But they were also optimistic that medical science could conquer this. In 1947, there was tremendous faith in the medical community, unlike today.”

You can read the full story of the 1947 smallpox vaccine here.

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