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Vaccine Revolt: Insurrection in Rio de Janeiro (1904)

The mass vaccination campaign against smallpox in 1904 was the perfect pretext to trigger the insurrection that became known as the “Vaccine Revolt”.

Vaccine Revolt: Insurrection in Rio de Janeiro (1904)

Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 23/03/2023

By: Cláudia Verardi - Librarian at Fundação Joaquim Nabuco - PhD in Librarianship and Documentation

The mass vaccination campaign against smallpox in 1904 was the perfect pretext to trigger the insurrection that became known as the “Vaccine Revolt”.

When President Rodrigues Alves took office in 1902, he began an intensive public works program, aiming at basic sanitation and urban reform in the city of Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of Brazil, as he had promised in the inauguration speech. This program was financed by external resources, initiating the economic recovery of the country.


To do so, he obtained almost dictatorial powers for the engineer Pereira Passos, appointed mayor, and for the physician Oswaldo Cruz, appointed director of the Public Health Service. (CARVALHO, 1987, p.93).


An English firm was hired for the port works in 1903 and in March 1904 they began the work. The Federal Government itself took charge of the complementary works of the Avenida Central [Central Avenue], Avenida do Cais (Rodrigues Alves) [Cais Avenue (Rodrigues Alves)], and Canal do Mangue [Mangue Canal], under the direction of a construction company whose chief engineer was Paulo de Frontin.

In December 1903, expropriations began for the construction of the Avenida Central. In February, 1904, the demolitions and the works of the Canal do Mangue started and, in parallel, the City Hall was in charge of widening some downtown streets.

Several measures adopted by Pereira Passos affected the daily life of the Rio de Janeiro populace, especially street vendors and beggars. These measures ranged from the prohibition of spitting on the ground to vehicles for the collection of dogs and cows in the streets and for taking beggars to nursing homes. Such measures even interfered in everyday activities, as children were prohibited from flying kites to avoid entangling them in electric power cables.


Whether it was the intention to ban street vendors and artisans, or archaic forms of distribution and transportation, or just to raise resources, the fact is that Pereira Passos used it strictly against these most vulnerable segments of the population, for which the payment of licenses or fines often represented an unsustainable burden. (BENCHIMOL, 2006, p. 264).


On the other hand, Oswaldo Cruz’s health-oriented activities also caused a lot of uproar in the city. First, he attacked yellow fever with methods already used in Cuba with two actions: extinction of mosquitoes and isolation of patients in hospitals. Next was the bubonic plague, which was also attacked with two actions: extermination of fleas and rats and cleaning and disinfection of houses and streets. These measures disrupted the lives of thousands of people who were forced to receive public health workers, leave their homes for disinfection, and often even to abandon their houses when they were condemned to demolition.

In this conflicting scenario, the fight against the third epidemic in Oswaldo Cruz’s target was started: smallpox.


Jenner's vaccine was introduced in Brazil in 1801. In 1837, a municipal posture had made it mandatory in Rio de Janeiro for children up to three months old, under penalty of a fine to be paid by those responsible. In 1884, the decree had extended the obligation to the entire Empire, encompassing all people. In December 1889, a month after the Proclamation of the Republic, the provisional government renewed the obligation for children up to six months of age. From then on, a series of decrees was extending the requirement of vaccination for students from public, civilian, and military schools, for post office employees, for inmates, and minors collected from public nursing homes. However, similar to the vaccine itself, which sometimes was not effective, these laws did not work, especially those that extended the obligation to all citizens. (CARVALHO, 1987, p.95-96).


As the previous laws were disobeyed, the Government decided to draw up a new law reintroducing the mandatory vaccination. The bill entered the Senate on June 29, 1904 and was passed on the 20th of the following month, becoming law on July 31. In the Senate, its biggest opponent was Lieutenant Colonel Lauro Sodré and, in the House, Major Barbosa Lima stood out, two military, positivist, and “Florianist” [adepts and enthusiasts of the politics of the second President of Brazil, Floriano Peixoto] men. Another positivist deputy involved in the campaign was Alfredo Varela, protected by Júlio de Castilhos.

The real motivation of the Revolt goes through previous political disputes involving the Partido Republicano Federal [Federal Republican Party – PRF] and the Partido Conservador [Conservative Party – PC]. Lauro Sodré, leader of the PRF with the support of the PC, led by Pinheiro Machado, was the key figure in inciting the movement, both in military and popular spheres. The opposition incited the population to see compulsory vaccination as a threat represented both by the entry of strangers into homes for disinfection and cleaning of environments, and by the moral side linked to the fact that agents touch the wives and daughters of families.

Since the bill was presented to Congress by Alagoas Senator Manuel José Duarte, a series of heated debates that went beyond the borders of the Legislature began. There was a small parliamentary opposition that resisted the implementation of the decree, together with the press and the population of the federal capital, which at the time was Rio de Janeiro.

The newspaper O Commercio do Brazil, with the financial assistance of monarchists from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, started to attack the government with violence and publish news against the mandatory vaccination.

The opposition was basically made up of two groups: the first group consisted of the Florianists (militaries), the so-called Jacobins (civilians), and the so-called Red or Radical Republicans; the second group consisted of the monarchists deposed by the new regime.

The first group was initially constituted by the nucleus of forces that ascended in the first phase of the republican regime of Brazil, that is, the military governments of Deodoro da Fonseca and, above all, that of Floriano Peixoto. This group of young officers, formed in cadet schools, with ideals based on the new scientific theories that aimed at a general reorganization of society inspired by the positivist theory of August Comte – an industrial civilization managed by company managers subordinated to legislation that ensured protection and assistance to workers governed by a military dictatorship.

The Government argued that vaccination was essential for public health and, in fact, there were several endemic outbreaks of the disease in the country, especially in the municipality of Rio de Janeiro. To reinforce the arguments, they presented examples of success: the vaccination campaigns of Germany in 1875, Italy in 1888, and France in 1902.


Therefore, calling it a “human law”, the government assumes the responsibility to implement the measure on a mandatory basis in the country, thus intending to reconcile “the high and important interests of public health, which is the health of the people, with the guarantees that the laws and the Constitution liberalize to those who inhabit our homeland”, in the words of the Minister of Justice and Interior, José Joaquim Seabra.(SEVCENKO, 2018, p. 18).


The opposition argued that it was not against the vaccine itself, but against the conditions of its application and its compulsory nature, that is, the mandatory nature of the law. The enraged opposition replied to the Government that, in Brazil, the methods of application, as well as the professionals involved in the process, were unreliable. They suggested that, if the government believed faithfully in the quality of the vaccine, that everyone should be given the freedom to decide on its application and the conditions to receive it.

The newspaper Correio da Manhã, in addition to the Commercio do Brazil, also fought against the obligation of the vaccine.

There was a choleric reaction against the vaccination regulation project even by the newspaper O Paiz (that supported the government), which considered the violent and extravagant methods a true attack to common sense and to the Constitution itself.

Oswaldo Cruz’s rigor in the regulation caused indignation and even those who supported the obligation of vaccination opposed the text, but the revolt was already in the streets even before the contents of the project were leaked to the press. According to Carvalho (1987, p. 100), Lauro Sodré spoke against the “iniquitous, arbitrary and depressing” law, which should be resisted even “with guns”.

The arguments of the fiery voices of the opposition also revolved around the violation of both the freedom and morals of society.


Doctor Soares Rodrigues, of great prestige in the capital, protested against the violent methods provided for in a law that “rips the children of their mothers, these of their children, to throw them into the horrible hospitals; who dispossesses the property of others with prohibitions, disinfections etc.” (SEVCENKO, 2018, p. 19).


Other statements protested against the despotic nature of the law, such as the senator for the Federal District Lauro Sodré, also former military, positivist, and Mason, who classified the law as arbitrary, iniquitous, and monstrous.

Even Rui Barbosa, representative of the most illustrious elite in the country, feared to submit to the vaccine and receive the smallpox virus:


“It has no name, in the category of crimes of power, the recklessness, the violence, the tyranny to which one ventures by exposing oneself voluntarily, obstinately, to be poisoned, with the introduction in one’s blood of a virus on whose influence there are the best-founded fears that it will lead to disease or death”. (SEVCENKO, 2018, p. 21).


If someone as cultured and well informed as Rui Barbosa, a politician respected by his peers, felt insecure about the whole process involving the application of the smallpox vaccine, it is no wonder that the population in general feared the action of the government.

The monarchists had been organizing themselves into parties and through newspapers, aiming at the military coup planned at first for October 17, 1904, but the conspiracy had been denounced and the rebels postponed their plans.

On November 9, 1904, the plan to regulate the mandatory vaccine to combat smallpox prepared by Doctor Oswaldo Cruz, then thirty years old and responsible for the entire sanitation campaign of the capital, was published. The regulation, which would no longer be subject to discussion, should apply to the entire population. There were defined the rules, methods and resources for the application of the vaccine through a Decree that escaped the deliberation of the Legislature and became a direct attribution of the presidency of the Republic.

The newspaper of the capital, “A Notícia”, published shortly after an outline of the decree spreading outrage and panic in the population.

The campaign was rigid and covered from newborns to older adults, with threats of heavy fines and even layoffs for those who failed to comply.

By breaking into homes and vaccinating people by force, health agents increased the anger in the population. Most people feared the effects of the vaccine and were frightened by the way it was applied.

On November 5, the League Against the Mandatory Vaccine was created, whose headquarters was the Center of the Working Classes.

Soon after the publication of the regulation on November 10, a great agitation was started, involving the population and the police. The furious demonstrations continued the next day.

On the morning of November 11, conflicts began between popular speakers, with inflamed speeches, and the police. Popular groups were dispersed. There was a huge confusion throughout the city with many insults, provocations, and shootings by the population. According to Sevcenko (2018, p.28), the fight was intense and the police could not take control of the situation anywhere.

On November 12, a new popular concentration of the League Against the Mandatory Vaccine occupies the headquarters of the Center of the Working Classes. Lauro Sodré and Barbosa Lima thus attributed a political sense to the insurrection, trying to secure the leadership of the League, taking advantage of the turmoil to carry out their own political project, which was the return of republicanism of the dictatorial type and against Florianism. The drama of the population, however, was far from political interests. The struggle was for respect for the condition of human beings, and in the name of their rights they would go to the last consequences.

On the 14th, the fighting began early morning. Rodrigues Alves summoned troops from the Army and Navy. The insubordinate officers were gathered in the Military Club and demanded the President to dismiss the Minister of Justice.


At dawn on the 15th, the coup broke out. Under the leadership of General Travassos and Lauro Sodré, about 300 students from the Military School of Praia Vermelha marched towards the Catete Palace. They hoped to converge with the forces coming from Realengo and the fortress of São João, where the revolt had, however, been neutralized. In the street of the Passage, they faced the troops faithful to the government. There was gunfire, dead and wounded, and there the military revolt ended. But the popular one continued to burn, and the warships even pointed the cannons at the popular blocks of Saúde and Gamboa. (BENCHIMOL, 2006, p.274-275).


On the morning of the 15th, the Military School was occupied by General Argollo and Minister Lauro Müller. The students were arrested and expelled from the School, boarded onto ships and transferred to ports in the southern region of the country.

On November 16th, the Government approved a state of siege in the Federal District. During the vote, both ruling and opposition parliamentarians rose to the rostrum to attack with equal contempt the poor rebels fighting the vaccination campaign. There was no mercy. Imprisoned rebels were huddled in prison ships and deported to the north of the country, in the confines of the Amazon Forest.

Soon after the Government decreed a state of siege and revoked the obligation of vaccination, the popular movement began to dismantle. The attention was then turned only to Porto Artur, a name given to what “O Paiz” called “the last stronghold of anarchism”.

The city returned almost completely to normal on the 18th, when there was only one shooting in Catete, resulting in the death of one civilian and two military personnel, as well as 80 prisoners.


The Vaccine Revolt remains an almost unique example in the country’s history of a successful popular movement based on defending the right of citizens not to be arbitrarily treated by the government. Even if the victory was not translated into immediate political changes beyond the interruption of vaccination, it certainly left among those who participated a deep feeling of pride and self-esteem, an important step in the formation of citizenship. (CARVALHO, 1987, p. 138-139).


There are countless damages caused by the confrontations, and the numbers of those slaughtered in the Vaccine Revolt is not known for sure. However, it is certain that there was a legitimate defense of civil rights by the population that marked the history of Brazil.




Recife, June 26, 2019.

sources consulted

BENCHIMOL, Jaime. Reforma urbana e Revolta da vacina na cidade do Rio de Janeiro. In: FERREIRA, Jorge; DELGADO, Lucila de Almeida Neves (Org.). O Brasil Republicano: da Proclamação da República à Revolução de 1930. 2 ed. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2006. p. 231-286

CARVALHO, José Murilo. Os bestializados: o Rio de janeiro e a república que não foi. 3 ed. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1991.

REVOLTA da vacina. [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: Acesso em: 27 jun. 2019.

SEVCENKO, Nicolau. A Revolta da Vacina: mentes insanas em corpos rebeldes. São Paulo: Ed. Unesp, 2018.

how to quote this text

VERARDI, Cláudia Albuquerque. Vaccine Revolt: Insurrection in Rio de Janeiro (1904). In: Pesquisa Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2019. Available at: Access on: month day year. (Ex.: Aug. 6, 2009).