The ruling in Jacobson vs. Massachusetts was invoked in a challenge of a vaccination requirement to attend school. High school student Rosalyn Zucht refused the smallpox vaccine in 1922, claiming there was no outbreak, and that she was being deprived of her liberty to opt out. The Supreme Court found that the Jacobson ruling and others had settled that states could “delegate to a municipality authority to determine under what conditions health regulations shall become operative.”
Buck v. Bell (1927)
Five years later in Buck v. Bell, the Court invoked Jacobson, ruling that forced sterilization of institutionalized women to promote the “health of the patient and the welfare of society” was allowed, in a case regarded today as a shameful marker of the practice of eugenics. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. observed that “the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”
Nurses sued to block a vaccine requirement at Houston Methodist Hospital, arguing that because Covid vaccines fell under Emergency Use Authorization, they were tantamount to Nazi-era medical experiments. A federal judge rejected the request, citing the Jacobson precedent, and blasted the comparison as “reprehensible.” Lawyers for the nurses have vowed to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
SANDRA McDANIEL is a producer at Retro Report. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weeklynewsletter.Subscribeand receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter@RetroReport.