On February 20, 1905, the Supreme Court, by a 7-2 majority, said in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts could fine residents who refused to receive smallpox injections. In 1901, a smallpox epidemic swept through the Northeast and Cambridge, and Massachusetts reacted by requiring all adults receive smallpox inoculations subject to a $5 fine. In 1902, Pastor Henning Jacobson, suggesting that he and his son both were injured by previous vaccines, refused to be vaccinated and to pay the fine. In state court, Jacobson argued the vaccine law violated the Massachusetts and federal constitutions. The state courts, including the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, rejected his claims. Before the Supreme Court, Jacobson argued that, “compulsion to introduce disease into a healthy system is a violation of liberty.”
In the face of future public health emergencies like the Coronavirus, a precedential Supreme Court decision about the government’s power to protect citizens by quarantine and forced vaccinations could receive new interest.