Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Portrait paintin of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) came from an aristocratic family. She was largely self educated through access to her families’ library, and determined to be a woman of letters. She suffered tragedy in her teenage years, witnessing her brother’s death from smallpox in 1713.

Lady Mary travelled to Istanbul for two years when her husband was appointed ambassador to the Sublime Porte. She wrote extensively about Turkish society, and produced the first secular work by a woman about the orient.

Open to the idea of learning from foreign cultures, she enquired into the lack of smallpox in Istanbul, and investigated the Turkish process of ‘engrafting’ which protected against infection. This involved taking a small amount of matter from an infected pustule in a mild case, and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person.

Her son was inoculated in this manner, and, during a later outbreak of smallpox on her return to England, her daughter was similarly treated.

Engrafting caught on – Caroline, Princess of Wales had her two daughters inoculated, but only after seven prisoners in Newgate Prison and eleven London orphans demonstrated they could survive the process. In Russia, Catherine the Great embraced the practice.

Some physicians in Britain were supportive, but many were incredulous that there was anything they could learn from a woman, an amateur, or a non-Christian country. Others who tried it failed to observe the Turkish practice of taking extreme care over the process, with the result being that their patients became ill with smallpox.

Lady Mary lived for many years away from England, in Venice, Florence, Rome, Genoa, Geneva and Avignon. Her writing challenged contemporary attitudes towards women’s intellectual and social growth. Eighty years after her promotion of engrafting, Edward Jenner introduced a much safer form of vaccination with cowpox. Six years later, James Gillray’s cartoon made a powerful anti-vaccination statement.

Soviet Russia introduced mandatory smallpox vaccination in 1919 to great effect. The World Health Organisation launched its worldwide eradication campaign in 1967, and succeeded in eliminating the disease just ten years later.

In a final tragic twist in 1978, Birmingham medical photographer and ASTMS union member Janet Parker became one of the last people to die from smallpox, assumed to be from a sample stored in a medical school laboratory. Sheila McKechnie, a regional officer for ASTMS, was very active in representing the interests of staff union members. Janet’s fate, and Sheila’s work, is well documented in Mark Pallen’s fascinating book The Last Days of Smallpox.

John Puntis