Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Portrait paintin of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu 1689-1762 (see Isobel Grundy, ‘Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – Comet of the Enlightenment’; Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999) came from an aristocratic family, largely self educated through having access to family library, and determined to be a woman of letters. Her brother died from smallpox in 1713 and she herself was infected in 1715. Lady Mary went to Istanbul for two years when her husband was appointed ambassador to the Sublime Porte.  She wrote extensively on Turkish society from mixing with Turkish women and can be credited with producing the first secular work by a woman about the orient.

Open to the idea of learning from a foreign culture, she enquired into the lack of smallpox in Istanbul and investigated the widely employed process of ‘engrafting’ (inoculation; variolation), which protected against the infection. This involved taking a small amount of matter from an infected pustule in a mild case and scratching this into the skin of an uninfected person. She had her son treated in this way, and then her daughter on returning to England and during another outbreak of smallpox. Caroline, Princess of Wales had her two daughters inoculated but only after 7 prisoners in Newgate Prison and 11 London orphans survived the process. The practice was adopted by Catherine the Great in Russia.

Some physicians in the Britain were supportive but others incredulous that there was anything they could learn from a woman/a non-professional/a non-Christian country. Some who used it failed to observe the Turkish practice of taking extreme care over the process, with the result that their patients became ill with smallpox. Lady Mary lived a long time away from England, in Venice Florence, Rome, Genoa, Geneva and Avignon. Her writings challenged social attitudes towards women and their intellectual and social growth. Eighty years after her promotion of variolation, Edward Jenner introduced the much safer vaccination with cowpox. Six years later, James Gillray’s cartoon made a powerful anti-vaccination statement (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1851-0901-1091).

Soviet Russia introduced mandatory smallpox vaccination in 1919 to great effect. The World Health Organisation launched its worldwide eradication campaign in 1967, with success coming ten years later. In 1978, Birmingham medical photographer and ASTMS member Janet Parker tragically died from smallpox, presumably from the medical school laboratory. Sheila McKechnie, a regional officer for ASTMS, was very active in representing the interests of staff union members. The whole affair is well documented in Mark Pallen’s fascinating book ‘Last Days of Smallpox’, although marred by anti-union posturing (https://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews//1980455228/ref=acr_dpx_hist_4?ie=UTF8&filterByStar=four_star&reviewerType=all_reviews#reviews-filter-bar).

John Puntis