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The Vaccine Revolt of 1904, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil  

Henrique Cukierman

A review of the literature on the Vaccine Revolt shows that it continues to be treated in an overly simplistic manner as a “structure” subjected to some form of regulation, from which its dynamics can be explained and its “root causes” identified. It is possible to forge a new, more cautious historiographical path, seeking to view this “structure” as a rhizome, as a loosely connected ensemble that exists under unstable circumstances whose precarious (dis)order cannot be grasped in its complexity by a reductionist analysis. Another historiographical approach that can shed new light on the popular revolt of 1904 situates it in the context of its links to the history of the smallpox vaccine and its diffusion. Viewing the episode as equally relevant to the history of science and technology, this article proposes to “vaccinate the Vaccine Revolt”—that is, to reintroduce the smallpox vaccine as a protagonist in the events—highlighting the need to treat the revolt as a chapter of a sociotechnical history; after all, what could be more sociotechnical than a technoscientific artifact that gave its name to a popular revolt? This is a history of scientists convinced of the superiority of their technical knowledge and of their right to exercise their power for the good of the public, who would be obliged to comply; most of all, it is a history without the problematic distinctions between content and context, between rationality and irrationality, between science and society. It is also a history of the popular mobilization on the streets of downtown Rio de Janeiro, exemplified by the vigorous resistance mounted in the working-class neighborhood of Saúde under the command of the Black man known as Prata Preta, which serves as a counterpoint to top-down historical narratives more concerned with the comings and goings of White political elites and coup-plotting, positivist-inspired generals, marked by the symptomatic exclusion of Black and working-class actors. It also serves to emphasize the symptomatic absence of the voice of Prata Preta, who was imprisoned and summarily banished without any due process. The fact that he was silenced has made it easier to construct allegories about “the people,” portraying them as heroic opponents of elite oppression or the exact opposite: an antiheroic, dangerous, and disposable rabble. Among the entourage of characters who have been silenced, one should also note the absence of women’s voices; although vaccine opponents rallied around the claim that they were defending against the “violation” of women’s bodies, nothing was heard from women’s mouths. Finally, revisiting the history of the Vaccine Revolt offers another opportunity to unmask the project of an authoritarian political, military, and scientific elite, with a particular focus on Oswaldo Cruz, one of Brazil’s greatest champions of science. In the name of science and public health, that elite envisioned a modern Brazil, while remaining ignorant of the daily nightmare lived by the vast majority of the Black, poor, and marginalized population.