I continue to be amazed by the number of otherwise rational-appearing adults who are refusing to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. I can only imagine what my late father would be saying about the large number of seemingly intelligent adults who have decided that vaccines are some kind of nefarious plot to … prevent them from dying.

The first man in Bridgton to enlist to fight the Civil War, John Tyler Webb survived four years in the Union Army and came back to his young wife, only to die of smallpox after refusing to be vaccinated. Photo courtesy of Margaret Reimer

Pop’s vigorous support for vaccination had its roots in his family’s history. The early years of his grandmother, who he called “Narmee,” taught her a painful lesson about what happens when otherwise-rational adults refuse vaccination, and Pop frequently reminded his own family about the consequences of missed vaccines.

John Tyler Webb, Narmee’s father, was a brave man. He was the first man in Bridgton to sign up to serve in the Civil War and spent four years away from his young wife while he served. After the war he resumed his work as a leather buyer, traveling the country buying hides to send back to his father-in-law’s tannery in Bridgton. My great-grandmother and her mother traveled with him on his journeys to the Midwest.

When smallpox – the COVID of the 19th century – was once again raging across the country, Grandfather Webb had his wife and young daughter vaccinated. That is what good husbands and fathers did. However, he refused to have himself vaccinated, as he considered it “unmanly.”

In 1872 John traveled to Kansas City to be present for the first auction of buffalo hides by the United States government, leaving his wife and daughter in Chicago. Unfortunately for John, that spring Kansas City experienced a huge outbreak of smallpox, killing many of the leather buyers, who – like Narmee’s dad – protected their manly identities but not their lives by refusing to be vaccinated. Extant telegrams and letters describe the excruciating death that John suffered. No one was able to be with him to comfort him as he died. My great-grandmother was a small child, scarred for life by the early and preventable death of her father. When she died in her late 80s, she was still angry at her father’s poor decision.

When I was young, I had a young child’s fear of needles and vaccinations, so I heard this story many times from my father as he tried to convince me that the small moment of discomfort was less important than saving my life. I dutifully, though not without tears, complied with the required shots. Ironically, my first career was nursing, where I used some of my father’s gentle reassurance when having to vaccinate frightened children.

I have been thinking a lot about Pop in the last few weeks, astonished by the reports of otherwise-rational adults who are refusing the COVID vaccine. If you are one of the folks who have decided that your political position trumps your need for a vaccination, please reconsider your decision. Your death might, like my great-great-grandfather’s, echo down through the generations as your descendants wonder what kinds of contributions to family and community life are missing because you are missing.

Be an adult. Take the jab.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.