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Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. The Court's decision articulated the view that the freedom of the individual must sometimes be subordinated to the common welfare and is subject to the police power of the state.

Jacobson v. Massachusetts
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued December 6, 1904
Decided February 20, 1905
Full case nameHenning Jacobson, plaintiff in error v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Citations197 U.S. 11 (more)
25 S. Ct. 358, 49 L. Ed. 643, 1905 U.S. LEXIS 1232
Case history
PriorDefendant convicted, Third District Court of Eastern Middlesex (1902); judgment affirmed, Commonwealth v. Henning Jacobson, 183 Mass 242 (1903)
The police power of a state must be held to embrace at least such reasonable regulations established directly by legislative enactment to protect public health and safety.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Melville Fuller
Associate Justices
John M. Harlan · David J. Brewer
Henry B. Brown · Edward D. White
Rufus W. Peckham · Joseph McKenna
Oliver W. Holmes Jr. · William R. Day
Case opinions
MajorityHarlan, joined by Fuller, Brown, White, McKenna, Holmes, Day


Pastor Henning Jacobson already lived through an era of mandatory vaccinations back in his original home in Sweden. The national law made vaccination mandatory and when he was a child, he was vaccinated for smallpox.[1] Although the efforts to eradicate smallpox were successful in Sweden, he did not agree with the methods. He said vaccination caused him "great and extreme suffering" that he would have to endure for the rest of his life. One of his sons "suffered adverse effects" after being vaccinated as a child. Jacobson and his wife were thus resistant when it came to mandatory vaccinations in Massachusetts.[1]

A leader in his community, Jacobson was one of the few who resisted mandatory vaccinations for smallpox in the early 20th century in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While many were pleased to hear about a vaccine for smallpox, others were alarmed by the idea of being stabbed by a needle and having cowpox injected inside of them. Jacobson was distraught by this and took his case against mandatory vaccinations to the Supreme Court in 1905. He refused the vaccine stating it was an "invasion of his liberty",[2] and was prosecuted.[1] The penalty for vaccination refusal was a $5 monetary fine (equivalent to $140 in 2018).[3] Pastor Jacobson refused vaccination saying that "he and his son had had bad reactions to earlier vaccinations". Because of his refusal to get vaccinated, Jacobson was fined $5 and appealed to the Supreme Court.[3]

The Fourteenth Amendment was brought up during the case on individual liberty. The case showed that the State was "restricting one aspect of liberty" by forcing people to get vaccinated. In its ruling in support of the Massachusetts law, the Supreme Court identified two primary rationales. One was that "the state may be justified in restricting individual liberty... under the pressure of great dangers" to the safety of the "general public".[3] By identifying the ongoing smallpox epidemic as a danger to the general public, the court ruled that individual rights and liberty were subordinate to the state's obligation to eradicate the disease. Jacobson had also argued that the law requiring vaccination was "arbitrary or oppressive".[3] The Court rejected the argument stating that mandatory immunization in the face of epidemic was not arbitrary or oppressive, but a measure for "getting to their goal of eradicating smallpox". Massachusetts was one of only 11 states that had compulsory vaccination laws.[4]


Justice John Marshall Harlan delivered the decision for a 7-2 majority. He rejected Jacobson's claim that the Fourteenth Amendment gave him the right to refuse vaccination. Harlan deemed that the Massachusetts state punishment of a fine or imprisonment on those who refused vaccines was acceptable, but those individuals could not be forcibly vaccinated.[5] At the end of his decision, he acknowledged that for certain individuals, the requirement of vaccination would be cruel and inhumane and therefore an overreach of government power. That created a medical exemption for adults under the Massachusetts health law, but Harlan denied that Henning Jacobson deserved exemption.[6]


Harlan ruled that personal liberties could be suspended when "the safety of the general public may demand" for example during a smallpox outbreak.[7] He compared the smallpox outbreak to the American Civil War (in which three out of nine Justices at the term served) by saying that a community has the right to protect itself from both disease and military invasion.[6]

More broadly, Harlan ruled that Massachusetts was justified in mandating vaccination: "there are manifold restraints to which each person is necessarily subject for the common good".[6] While Harlan supported such restraints, he also warned that if the state targeted specific individuals or populations to unnecessary restrictions, the court might have to step in to protect them.

That was a few years after Wong Wai v. Williamson in which a federal circuit court injunction in San Francisco was overturned. It required all Chinese residents of San Francisco to get a dangerous bubonic plague inoculation if they wished to leave the city, which Judge William Morrow ruled was "boldly directed against the Asiatic or Mongolian race as a class".[6]

Harlan's decision supported both police power and limits on the power, and his decision would be invoked to support both in later cases. He stated his nuanced opinion on the limits of government power by saying that "general terms should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression or absurd consequence". [6]

Subsequent developmentsEdit

The anti-vaccine movement mobilized following the decision and the Anti-Vaccination League of America was founded three years later in Philadelphia to promote the principle that "health is nature's greatest safeguard against disease and that therefore no State has the right to demand of anyone the impairment of his or her health." The League warned about what it believed to be the dangers of vaccination and the dangers of allowing the intrusion of government and science into private life, part of the broader process identified with the Progressive Movement. The League asked, "We have repudiated religious tyranny; we have rejected political tyranny; shall we now submit to medical tyranny?"[8]

The Supreme Court reaffirmed its decision in Jacobson in Zucht v. King (1922), which held that a school system could refuse admission to a student who failed to receive a required vaccination.[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Wilrich, Michael (2011). Pox: An American History. Penguin.
  2. ^ Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905).
  3. ^ a b c d Mariner, Wendy K.; Annas, George J.; Glantz, Leonard H. (2005-04-01). "Jacobson v Massachusetts: It's Not Your Great-Great-Grandfather's Public Health Law". American Journal of Public Health. 95 (4): 581–590. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2004.055160. ISSN 0090-0036. PMC 1449224. PMID 15798113.
  4. ^ "Toward a Twenty-First-Century Jacobson v. Massachusetts" (PDF). Harvard Law Review. The Harvard Law Review Association. 121 (7): 1822. May 2008. Retrieved 13 March 2014.
  5. ^ Curry, Lynn (2002). The Human Body on Trial: A Sourcebook With Cases, Laws, And Documents. ABC-CLIO. p. 105. ISBN 1-57607-349-1.
  6. ^ a b c d e Willrich, Michael (2011). Pox: An American History. Penguin Books. pp. 319–329. ISBN 978-0-14-312078-0.
  7. ^ "Toward a Twenty-First-Century Jacobson v. Massachusetts" (PDF). Harvard Law Review. The Harvard Law Review Association. 121 (7): 1822–1823. May 2008. Retrieved 13 March 2014.
  8. ^ "Toward a Twenty-First-Century Jacobson v. Massachusetts" (PDF). Harvard Law Review. The Harvard Law Review Association. 121 (7): 1823–1824. May 2008. Retrieved 13 March 2014.
  9. ^ "Toward a Twenty-First-Century Jacobson v. Massachusetts" (PDF). Harvard Law Review. The Harvard Law Review Association. 121 (7): 1824–1825. May 2008. Retrieved 13 March 2014.


External linksEdit