Benjamin Franklin lived a long and wonderful life. He was an entrepreneur, a diplomat, a scientist, a writer and a father. But one regret haunted him always.
As a scientist, he had approached a new, controversial idea with skepticism. Borrowing a technique carried over to America by African slaves, some of Philadelphia’s leading citizens were proposing to deliberately infect people with material from smallpox patients as a rudimentary form of vaccination. In the pages of his newspaper, Franklin initially doubted the wisdom and effectiveness of this treatment. As more data came back, he softened his stance, eventually becoming a supporter of vaccines.
But when it came to his own family, he hesitated. Some suspect he and his wife were of differing opinions on the issue. He wanted to vaccinate their children. She did not. His son, Francis, had some medical issues, so they waited. Maybe they hoped the epidemic would wear itself out. Maybe they hoped they’d be mercifully spared. Maybe they just thought they had a little more time.
They did not. In the fall of 1736 Francis Folger Franklin came down with smallpox. He died that same November. Franklin would never be the same. Neither would his marriage (they would spend only a few combined months together over the next 38 years). And in his very short, mostly inspirational autobiography, Franklin took the time to put in one serious, painful warning:
“I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”
It is, on the one hand, a message very much of its time, when the world was far more dangerous and the decisions faced by parents were consistently terrible. And yet, tragically, Franklin’s words are also incredibly timely. His emotions, his regret, more familiar than any of us would like to admit.