For a Winnipeg archivist, a bold move by an 18th-century Russian empress makes a strong case for people to get vaccinated during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Conrad Stoesz was reading about the efforts of Catherine the Great of Russia to protect her country against smallpox when he realized her connection to 200-year-old immunization records of Mennonite children held at Mennonite Heritage Archives at Canadian Mennonite University.
"I know people are discussing vaccinations and the safety of them and they’re wary of them," says Stoesz, who has written about Catherine the Great’s immunization campaign in social media posts and German-language newspapers read by conservative Mennonite groups.
"Two hundred years ago people were trying out vaccinations and it works. Vaccines have shown to reduce illness."
The 1809 and 1814 records lists names of about 400 children in the Chortitza and Molotschna Mennonite colonies, now part of the Ukraine, who were immunized against smallpox by medical personnel travelling from village to village, Stoesz says.
Descendants of those children were among the thousands of Mennonites who emigrated to Manitoba in the 1870s, including previous generations of Stoesz’s family.
"I might not be around today if some of (my) ancestors weren’t vaccinated," he says of his personal connection to the two century-old lists, held on microfiche provided by Odessa Archives in Ukraine.
Catherine the Great began a country-wide immunization effort against smallpox in 1768, after inviting British physician Thomas Dinsdale to use her and her son Paul as test subjects for an inoculation procedure that provoked a mild form of the disease in a healthy person.
English surgeon Edward Jenner had developed a smallpox vaccine derived from a pox-type virus related to smallpox in the late 18th century. Smallpox killed about 30 per cent of those infected, and often marked the recovered with deep pitted scars. In 1980, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been eradicated.
By 1800, about two million Russians had been vaccinated, and these Mennonite records demonstrate that the efforts continued into the 19th century, says an American family physician who transcribed the original records two decades ago.
"Our Mennonite ancestors were being pretty avant-garde and were starting to immunize their children against something very lethal at the time," says Dr. Tim Janzen of Portland, Ore., who researches Mennonite history and genealogy in his spare time.
Like other families in Russia and around the world, Mennonites would have lost children to smallpox and may have been eager for their children to gain immunity, says Janzen, who fields questions daily from his patients about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
Stoesz says the historical immunization lists offer some hope for our situation in the current global pandemic and set an example for some religious groups hesitant to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
"The past always has something to say," he says.
"We just have to be looking for it and be attentive to it."
Mennonites are encouraged to set another trend during this pandemic by lobbying Canadian politicians to donate excess vaccine supplies to other countries in need, says Anna Vogt, director of Mennonite Central Committee’s Ottawa office.
"The pandemic won’t stop anywhere until the pandemic stops everywhere," she says of the reason for the campaign launched April 19 by the international relief and development organization.
Vogt says although Canadians have access to vaccinations in 2021, many others in the world don’t, and Canada has purchased more vaccine than it can use. MCC sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, federal cabinet ministers and opposition MPS asking them to create and implement a plan to redistribute excess Canadian vaccines to essential workers in low and middle income countries.
She encourages people of faith to send their own electronic message to political leaders by following the links at https://mcccanada.ca/get-involved/advocacy/campaigns/vaccine-justice.
"We’re really hoping Canadians of faith will join us in asking our government to do more in support of equitable vaccine access," says Vogt.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.