Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time in English history when the populace vigorously refused to be protected against the smallpox scourge that so often ravaged the countryside. Indeed, to this day in the 21st century, there are still many people around the world who view vaccination against disease an unsafe practice, and refuse to partake of its proven benefits. Back in 1796, when English doctor Edward Jenner first demonstrated the usefulness of introducing cowpox into an individual to prevent smallpox, his discovery was viewed as a great advancement. By the early 1800s, vaccination of this type was widespread, despite the possible dangers of infection. But when Britain passed Vaccination Acts from 1840 – 1853 that made these vaccinations compulsory, well, that’s when the trouble started. The Anti-Vaccination League was formed in 1853, outraged that the populace was being forced to undergo this dangerous procedure with its concomitant loss of civil liberties. Finally, a compromise of sorts was reached in 1898, when the laws were amended to allow conscientiously objecting parents to exempt their children from the vaccination laws. This new ruling apparently dismayed author H. Rider Haggard, and led to the writing of his 23rd novel, Doctor Therne, that same year.
This novel, very much a piece of pro-vaccination propaganda and in fact dedicated to the Jenner Society, is nevertheless a very enjoyable story that modern-day readers should find highly affecting (even FanLit readers, although it contains no fantastic elements to speak of). It tells the story of “James Therne,” a promising young doctor who suffers some early tragedies. He is unjustly accused in a malpractice case, loses all his patients even though he is acquitted, and later suffers the loss of his young wife. Though a staunch believer in vaccination, he runs for Parliament on an anti-vaccination platform, selling out his beliefs and morals for political gain and filthy lucre. Need I mention that this only leads to tragedy for Therne, his daughter and the general community, when a smallpox outbreak strikes his (fictional) town of Dunchester many years later? Despite his greater scientific knowledge, Therne has never inoculated his young daughter, for political reasons, and the confrontation between the two of them years later, as the deadly sickness sweeps through the town, is one of the most dramatic scenes in any of the 45 Haggard books that I’ve read so far.
But this is not merely a novel of propaganda and dramatic incident. Haggard, great adventure storyteller that he was, seemed incapable of writing a book without some kind of action set piece to pull the reader in at the beginning of the tale, and Doctor Therne is no exception. Thus, at the story’s beginning, we learn of how the good/bad doctor first met his wife in the wilds of Mexico, and of the trouble the two got into with a band of sleazy banditos. Heaven forbid that ol’ H. Rider produce a book without one action sequence! But for the most part, Haggard had some strong points that he wished to make with this novel; namely, that vaccination is a blessing to mankind, and that all those who sell their morals and beliefs for money and personal gain are doomed to reap a bitter harvest. Though one of the more obscure titles in Haggard’s bibliography, and one of the shortest (the vintage edition that I just read had this 209-page novel teamed with another Haggard novel, the wonderful Mr. Meeson’s Will), it is a work that deserves a wider audience today, as it holds up marvelously well indeed.