top of page


One Man, Three Histories: An Analysis of the Impact of Presentist
Histories on 19th Century Vaccination Debates

ROSIE POLING, Harvard College '21

THURJ Volume 13 | Issue 2


To understand the role of history in crafting health policy, this paper analyzes a historicist debate that played out in the late 19th century over “father of vaccination” Edward Jenner and compulsory vaccination laws. Between 1888 and 1896, the Royal Commission on Vaccination Laws heard arguments from a variety of perspectives. Within this time, three different histories of Jenner were published. Despite using the same primary sources, they came to different conclusions on who Jenner was. The British Medical Journal’s portrayed Jenner as a hero, upholding both his scientific credibility and personal credibility. Edgar Crookshank, an anti- vaccinator who was also a professor of bacteriology, emphasized Jenner's failing as a scientist as a reason both Jenner and vaccination should be rejected. Another anti-vaccinator, William White, constructed a version of Jenner that was selfish and suggested that his invention could therefore not be trusted. Ultimately, the BMJ’s account was effective at reaching policymakers while White’s narrative influenced the public. Through this analysis, the role of presentism in health policy can be understood to be influential.


Is history relevant to health policy? This question dominates discussions among historians today, with a variety of perspectives on the value of history when discussing COVID-19 vaccination policies. Some argue for historicism, emphasizing that impartiality and disinterest are crucial to the production of history, citing how initial comparisons of COVID-19 to the 2003 SARS epidemic handicapped the response by not taking asymptomatic spread into account. Others argue that it is crucial to take a presentist approach, emphasizing that history is written to be meaningful to the living and there is much we can learn from analyzing common threads in all pandemics (Jones, 2020; Steinmetz-Jenkins, 2020). Some of the justification for social distancing measures came from a study from the 1918 influenza, demonstrating that shutting down sooner lead to a decreased death toll (Strochlic & Champine, 2020). There seems to lack a consensus on what role, if any, history should play in the policymaking or policy evaluation processes.
In perhaps a paradoxical fashion, this paper will explore how a presentist approach to history was used to justify different policies around vaccination in the late 19th century, specifically narratives about “the father of vaccination” Edward Jenner. In this case, presentism is defined in opposition to historicism, Presentism interprets the past with reference to the present, while historicism attempts to be entirely objective. Looking at three separate historical constructions of Jenner written ninety years after his first vaccination, I hope to understand how historical arguments were understood to be relevant to the policy debates about compulsory vaccination My argument will begin by exploring the legislative context and the authors’ proposed policies around vaccination. Then, I will examine how they used historical evidence to construct narratives of Jenner‘s life that supported their policies. Finally, I look at their own evaluations of the role history plays in policy arguments and how their narratives impacted the policy that was eventually developed Analyzing their different legislative proposals and the different ways they represent Jenner provides a fascinating historical case study in presentism and policy that is applicable to the current moment.

Understanding the policy landscape that the sources were written
in is crucial to understanding both their policies and histories. Edward
Jenner popularized vaccination in 1796, but compulsory vaccination first became part of Parliament's policy discussions in 1840, when they passed an act mandating that all infants had to be vaccinated within one month of life. Between 1840 and 1871, a series of acts were passed that tightened the enforcement of the law by creating Vaccination Officers and instituting harsher penalties for parents avoiding vaccinating their children. While statistics collected about the decline of smallpox prevalence supported this policy, those opposed to these laws (for a variety of reasons) began to organize and demand they be repealed. In 1888, Jacob Bright (a representative for Manchester in the House of Commons) introduced a repeal of the compulsory vaccination laws. Even though this repeal was defeated, a Royal Commission was set up to study the grievances of the anti-vaccinator community and receive input from the medical profession (Porter & Porter, 1988).
From 1888 to 1896, the Royal Commission on Vaccination Laws heard arguments on different policies from a variety of people. While all anti-vaccinators opposed vaccination laws, they had different reasons for being against vaccination and therefore propose distinct policies in response (Porter & Porter, 1988). This essay will focus on three district historical stories of Jenner circulating between 1888 and 1896 that were used to argue for specific vaccination policies. This section will focus on understanding the biases of the “historians,” as well as their links to the health policy debate, before analyzing how and why they produced their versions of Jenner. The narrative published first was written in 1885 by William White, a Swedenborgian bookseller who helped co-found the London Society for the Abolition of Complusory Vaccination (Porter & Porter, 1988). As the first editor of the “Vaccination Inquirer,” he published chapters of his book in various issues. While the readership of the “Vaccination Inquirer" likely included some medical experts and politicians, based off the correspondence section it was mostly different factions of the public, especially working-class parents (London Society for the Abolition of Compulsory Vaccination, 1880). When White was alive, he was also active in petitioning the government. In 1883, he published a work entitled Lyon Playfair taken to Pieces and disposed of: likewise Sir Charles W. Dilke, Bart: being a Dissection of their Speeches in the House of Commons on 19th June, 1883, in defense of Compulsory Vaccination” In this work, he directly challenged their laws through his
writing, and is praised for “effectually disposing of the plea for compulsory vaccination” (White, 1885). Although White died in 1885, his legacy as the “historian” for the movement was carried on by the way many in the public viewed the history of vaccination (Porter & Porter, 1988).
Without a scientific background, his 600-plus page account entitled
“The Great Delusion” details his version of the history of vaccination
without mentioning much scientific data. Directed to a public
audience, his tone is often sarcastic and angry. In the preface, he
writes that the laws of England compelled him to speak out on this
topic, as by making it policy, vaccination was no longer a “private
matter” (White, 1885). He attacked the notion that vaccination laws
were purely a medical matter, as the public paid taxes and were
subjected to the laws (Porter & Porter, 1988). He was not just
concerned about governmental intervention, however, as his policy
proposals were for complete repeal of any oppressive medical systems,

to 19,000 members and increased the length of the BMJ from 20 to Emphasizing doctors that benefited from vaccination, he believed that 64 pages, increasing the influence of the medical community. He
they could not be trusted to overturn the compulsory policies and it needed to be “overthrown from without” (White, 1885, pp. 584-585). He contends that “it would be as reasonable to: expect slaveholders to denounce slavery ... as for those whose professional prestige and advantage are involved in the practice to speak the truth about vaccination.” Comparing doctors to slaveholders, he attests that the problem is the system, not individuals working in the system. In his narrative, he sought to prove it was not just Jenner that was a “bad apple,” the whole system was rotten. He did this by showing how Jenner was rewarded for negative character traits by the scientific community.
While Edgar M. Crookshank agreed with White on the need to repeal the vaccination acts, he believed the medical profession had a role to play. As the first professor of bacteriology at King’s College London, his large two-volume study published in 1889 called “Vaccination, its history and pathology” was directed to his fellow “scientists” (Porter & Porter, 1988). In his preface, he writes that while he originally “accepted and taught the doctrines,” he changed his view on vaccination when he was granted access to original materials about the history of Jenner. Through this history, he questions the link between smallpox and cowpox, as well as Jenner's scientific methodologies (Edgar March Crookshank, 1889). This volume was read by others in the medical profession, as shown by a review of it published in “The Journal of the Society of Medical Officers of Health” and references to it in the BMJ's centenary issue, but Crookshank’s reach stretched further than that as well (“Jenner Centenary Number,” 1896; “Professor Crook shank’s Evidence before
wielded this prestige by being active in health policy debates, functioning as chairman of the British Medical Association's Parliamentary Bill Committee from 1872 to 1897 (Bartrip, 2004; Holmes, 1898). In 1880, he published a book called “The Truth About Vaccination” in which he refuted anti-vaccinator arguments, mainly using “modern” scientific data as opposed to historical arguments. In the preface, he explicitly addresses that he wrote the book for members of parliament who are “at their wits’ ends to know where to find the true facts which these gentlemen (anti- vaccinators) delight to misrepresent” (Hart, 1880, p. v). While the bulk of Hart’s arguments in this book are rooted in statistics and medical explanations, his work in publishing the BMJ issue celebrating Jenner demonstrates that he also thought that the early history was relevant.
This issue emphasizes the connection between history and current laws, as an article entitled “The Jenner Centenary: A Prophet Without Honor in His Own Country” is immediately followed by an article entitled “The Law as to Vaccination and Its Future.” In this article, the BMJ editors argue for a policy of compulsory vaccination controlled by a central authority. They write that "never since vaccination came into operation has there been more convincing proof than is now available as to the necessity of a compulsory law as to vaccination...” demonstrating that they see the value that “modern” statistics gave them in arguing this point. They believe that for efficiency, uniformity, and safety reasons, a central authority should organize and inspect public vaccinators, as opposed to coordination within districts (‘Jenner Centenary Number,” 1896, pp. 1299-1301). Firm believers in
the Vaccination Commission,” 1894a; “The “Critical Inquiry" of Edgarscientific authority, they argue that these laws are necessary because
M. Crookshank, M.B,” 1890). Aside from various quotes in “Vaccination Inquirer” (a journal that reported anti-vaccination stories), he also testified for the Royal Commission's review of vaccination laws, citing evidence from his book (“Professor Crookshank’s Evidence before the Vaccination Commission,” 1894b). Specifically, in the hearing held by Lord Hersehell, he advocated for the repeal of the vaccination laws and replacement with a system of
“the public must be protected against itself” (“Jenner Centenary Number,’ 1896, p. 1290). To advocate for compulsory vaccination, they needed to craft a version of Jenner who was an upstanding scientist and respectable person who gained public trust.
All these individuals produced narratives of Jenner that they believed to be relevant to their policy proposals and as such their portrayals of Jenner were very different. Crookshank, coming from a scientific background, emphasized Jenner’s failings as a scientist while White emphasizes his selfishness and conceitedness to a public audience. The BMJ account of Jenner's life sought to refute
both attacks by defending both Jenner’s scientific credibility and character.



We analyze the income profiles of Asian immigrants from China, India, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. In our classification, "immigrants" encompass individuals who are born in any of the six Asian countries, irrespective of whether they later became naturalized citizens in the U.S. On the other hand, we designate "natives" as white males born in any of the 50 U.S. states.

Our dataset comprises all available decennial census data spanning from 1970 to 2000, as well as the pooled 2009-2011 and 2019-2021 American Community Surveys (ACS). The ACS is currently the largest available survey that includes information on race/ethnicity and socioeconomic characteristics. For simplicity, we refer to the pooled 2009-2011 and 2019-2021 ACS survey data as 2010 and 2020 censuses, respectively. 

As is customary in labor force studies, we limit our native and immigrant sample to male adults of working age (18 to 65). We also restrict our immigrant sample exclusively to males who immigrated to the U.S. after turning 18 to ensure the tracking of cohorts across censuses is unaffected by subsequent waves of immigrants who arrive as children. This accounts for the possibility that immigrant children likely assimilate faster than their adult counterparts due to their integration into the American education system.

Regression Equations

We estimate the following regression model in each of the census cross-sections from 1970 to 2020 and for each country of origin.

The dependent variable is the logarithm of the total pre-tax wage and salary income earned by a worker i in cross-section t and in cohort c compared to natives. The regressors include the worker’s age introduced as a third-degree polynomial,      . 

       are the fixed effects of a specific cohort in a given cross-section. We also control for education, which represents the observable differences in skills between Asian immigrants and natives. Finally, the regression model includes a fixed effect for the immigrant cohort that arrived on or before 1949 so that the earliest cohort starts at 1950.

Screen Shot 2023-12-22 at 10.33.19 PM.png
Screen Shot 2023-12-22 at 10.34.03 PM.png
Screen Shot 2023-12-22 at 10.50.14 PM.png

Main Results

Tables 1-6 display regression coefficients for all six Asian countries. In contrast to Borjas’s (2015) findings, where he observed that immigrants of all races and ethnicities in more recent cohorts had relatively lower entry wages compared to earlier cohorts, our study reveals a different trend among Asian immigrant cohorts. Specifically, we find that more recent Asian immigrant cohorts tend to experience either improved or similar levels of initial wage disadvantage upon entry compared to older cohorts for all six Asian countries.

For example, when we control for age and education, Chinese immigrants who arrived in 1965 and 1975 earned approximately 70% less than natives during their first decade in the U.S. However, Chinese immigrants who arrived in 2005 earned around 50% less than natives, and this wage gap was further reduced to approximately 30% for the latest wave of Chinese immigrants arriving in 2015. This indicates an improvement in the initial wage disadvantage over time. Similarly, Indian immigrants experienced an initial wage disadvantage of around 50-60% compared to natives for the 1965 and 1975 cohorts, but this gap diminished with each subsequent cohort and eventually closed entirely by 2020. On the other hand, Filipino immigrants exhibited a relatively stable pattern, starting with the 1965 and 1975 cohorts earning around 50-60% less than natives upon arrival, and this wage disadvantage persisted in successive cohorts, plateauing at around 48-53% in 2005 and 2015. In contrast, Korean immigrants from the 1975 to 2005 cohorts had a wage gap of approximately 60% relative to natives, which reduced to around 40% in 2015, indicating a modest level of improvement relative to earlier cohorts. These examples either contradict Borjas's findings on lower entry wages for immigrants overall or demonstrate no significant changes in the long-term trend of entry wages for specific Asian countries.

Next, we define the rate of economic assimilation as the pace at which the wage gap between migrants and natives narrows over time. In contrast to Borjas’s (2015) findings on the slowdown of assimilation rates in successive cohorts over time for immigrants of all origins (referred to as “cohort effects”), we find no substantial evidence of this collective assimilation pattern in successive cohorts for all six Asian countries.
For instance, when examining Korean and Japanese immigrants, we observe that the wage differential relative to natives for the 1950-1975 cohorts closed within their first decade upon arrival in the U.S., but it did not close as rapidly for subsequent cohorts within the first decade. Similarly, all Indian cohorts experienced rapid assimilation, with the wage gap closing for each cohort within their first five or ten years in the U.S. In contrast, Chinese immigrants experienced slower rates of assimilation, as seen in the 1950 and 1960 cohorts, where their wages were, on average, at a disadvantage of around 25.7% and 38.9%, respectively, compared to their native counterparts. This wage gap closed, as demonstrated in the 1990 and 2000 censuses, respectively, after 40 years of their residence in the U.S. Likewise, Vietnamese cohorts generally experienced much slower assimilation, with the wage gap closing for each cohort after 40 years of residency in the U.S.

While the analyses above focus on the rate of assimilation over time between different countries, Figures 1-6 show the rate of assimilation between cohorts within a single country across time. We have normalized the wages for each cohort so that the logarithm of the wage at the time of entry is 0, thereby capturing the cohort effects and allowing us to visualize how cohorts evolve over time. 

When examining the graphs for Indian, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese immigrants, a general trend emerges where older cohorts tend to exhibit a higher rate of assimilation. However, in contrast, the graph for Chinese immigrants reveals that more recent cohorts experience a greater rate of assimilation.
In summary, immigrant cohorts from each Asian country display unique and divergent trends, indicating the absence of any clear, uniform pattern. This finding contradicts the "model minority" myth that suggests a consistent pattern of success among Asian immigrant cohorts.


Screen Shot 2023-12-22 at 10.41.04 PM.png
Screen Shot 2023-12-22 at 10.41.12 PM.png
Screen Shot 2023-12-22 at 10.41.19 PM.png
Screen Shot 2023-12-22 at 10.41.25 PM.png
Screen Shot 2023-12-22 at 10.41.32 PM.png
Screen Shot 2023-12-22 at 10.41.38 PM.png
Screen Shot 2023-12-22 at 10.42.03 PM.png


From our data, we observe that recent cohorts of Asian immigrants tend to have either higher or similar relative wages upon entry compared to older cohorts across all six Asian countries. Additionally, there is no consistent pattern in the rates of assimilation among cohorts within these six Asian countries, which challenges the prevailing "model minority" myth.

One possible explanation for the wage disparity between immigrants and native populations lies in the differing skill compositions of these groups. These skill-based distinctions are observable through factors such as education, while unobservable skill-based differences may be attributed to labor market discrimination, language barriers, and other factors. Another facet of unobservable skill differences, often referred to as omitted variable bias, may stem from the fact that educational qualifications earned in foreign countries may not seamlessly translate into the U.S. context. This could be due to cultural disparities in the workplace or additional licensing requirements in the U.S., potentially hindering immigrants from securing jobs that match their qualifications compared to their U.S. native counterparts.


This paper utilizes data drawn from the 1970–2000 decennial U.S. censuses and pooled 2009-2011 and 2019-2021 ACS data to document and investigate the long-run trends in Asian immigrant earnings spanning several decades, disaggregated by country of origin. One of the central findings of this paper is that, on average, more recent cohorts of Asian American immigrants tend to experience either higher or similar levels of entry wages compared to natives. Furthermore, the long-term trends in the data question the validity of the "model minority" myth, which assumes that all Asian American descendants uniformly outperform U.S. natives, as we observe very distinct paths in the economic assimilation of various Asian groups.

However, this study has a notable limitation, namely, we assumed that immigrants from earlier censuses continue to be present in successive censuses in order to track cohorts over time. In reality, individuals may retire, pass away, or simply return to their home countries, which is more likely for those who may have faced unfavorable job prospects in the U.S. This could lead to an underestimation of the true economic progress within a cohort. Therefore, it is imperative to replicate these findings using longitudinal samples rather than relying solely on the repeated cross-sectional data available in census records. While tracking individual immigrants across several decades may be logistically challenging, it would enhance the validity of our results.

Furthermore, it is essential to account for inflation when assessing earnings growth to obtain a comprehensive understanding of assimilation within a cohort. Macroeconomic conditions can also introduce biases into estimates of aging and cohort effects. Events like the Cold War, the Dot Com Bubble, or the 2008 Great Financial Crisis, may disproportionately impact specific groups of immigrants. It is probable that the variation in how these groups are impacted before and after a certain event is similar, and our cross-sectional methodology effectively captures this effect. However, in future research, we can evaluate whether all groups are equally affected by measuring their correlation with macro events. 
Finally, our study samples are restricted to Asian immigrants from the six major countries of origin, which means that smaller Asian countries are not included in our analysis. A more comprehensive analysis is required to precisely gauge the impact of these factors on the wage assimilation patterns over time for all Asian immigrant groups.


Borjas, George J. 2015. “The Slowdown in the Economic Assimilation of Immigrants: Aging and Cohort Effects Revisited Again.” Journal of Human Capital. 9(4):483-517.

Chiswick, Barry R. 1978. “The Effect of Americanization on the Earnings of Foreign-born Men.” Journal of Political Economy. 86(5): 897-921.

Duleep, Harriet, Seth Sanders. 2012. “The Economic Status of Asian Americans Before and After the Civil Rights Act.” IZA Institute of Labor Economics Discussion Papers. No. 6639. 

Iceland, John. 1999. “Earnings Returns to Occupational Status: Are Asian Americans
Disadvantaged?” Social Science Research. 28(1): 45–65.

Kao, Grace, and Jennifer S. Thompson. 2003. “Racial and Ethnic Stratification in Educational Achievement and Attainment.” Annual Review of Sociology. 29(1): 417–42.

Kuo, Joyce. 1998. “Excluded, Segregated and Forgotten: A Historical View of the 46
Discrimination of Chinese Americans in Public Schools Notes and Comments.” Asian
Law Journal 5: 181–212.

Kwon, Eunhye. 2011. “Interracial Marriages Among Asian Americans in the U.S. West, 1880–
1954.” PhD dissertation, Department of History, University of Florida.

Lee, Jennifer, and Min Zhou. 2015. “The Asian American Achievement Paradox.” Russell Sage Foundation.

Lew-Williams, Beth. 2018. “The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the
Alien in America.” Harvard University Press.

Pew Research Center. 2012. “The Rise of Asian Americans.”

Sakamoto, Arthur, Kimberly A. Goyette, and ChangHwan Kim. 2009. “Socioeconomic
Attainments of Asian Americans.” Annual Review of Sociology. 35(1): 255–76.

bottom of page