The Courageous Woman Who Saved 18th Century Britain from Smallpox
Mary Wortley Montagu was an English aristocrat, adventurer and literary marvel.
She was also the reason millions survived the smallpox epidemic that ravaged Britain in the early 1700s.
And yet, like so many other unconventional and courageous women who changed history, her contribution to the popularization and eventual eradication of the smallpox disease has all but been forgotten.
The Early Years of Mary Wortley Montagu
Born into a wealthy family in 1689, Lady Mary was bright and brilliant but in the tradition of her class, received only a modest education at home. That said, it is known that she taught herself Latin. Additionally, through ongoing study became knowledgeable on a wide range of other subjects.
She aspired to be a writer, even while female writers were rare in her day, and throughout her life wrote letters, verse and essays that have long since been admired for their skill and satire.
Much of her poetry and essays concerned feminist topics. These included the idea proposed by her friend and English protofeminist writer and philosopher, Mary Astell, that retreats founded for unmarried women could arm them with enough education so as to free them from the economic necessity of an early marriage.
However, such views didn't prevent Lady Mary herself from succumbing to wedlock.
Confident and charming, she had many suitors. But when her father, the first Duke of Kingston, attempted to arrange a suitable marriage, she rejected his choice, eloping instead with an up-and-coming political star, Edward Wortley Montagu.
Smallpox Epidemic in London
The couple set up house in London during a period when smallpox was wreaking havoc across the world.
Severely contagious, viral smallpox spread tiny pus-filled blisters across the bodies of the infected and killed one in four of its victims.
Lady Mary’s family was not spared. Her younger brother died of smallpox at age 20, leaving behind two children.
Two years later, at 25 years old, Lady Mary herself was struck down by the affliction. Though she recovered, her skin was badly scarred, with the area around her eyes remaining particularly pink and raw.
Moving to Constantinople
In 1716, Edward Montagu was appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman empire and the couple and their three-year-old son moved to Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
The move opened Lady Mary to the pleasures of travel, of which she did plenty during her time in Turkey.
A letter from the adventurous aristocrat to her friend and correspondent, Mrs. Frances Hewet, highlights journeys made through Hungary, Bohemia and across the towns and cities of her new homeland.
New Medical Methods from Constantinople
It was also in Turkey that she was introduced to a practice that would change forever how the western world responded to the deadly disease of smallpox.
In the women’s quarters of the Turkish capital, she witnessed what today we call “inoculation,” or more accurately “variolation” – a method of introducing the smallpox virus to an uninfected person, thereby providing immunity from the disease.
Lady Mary wrote:
…the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell.”
Excited by the success that this practice had at keeping the virus at bay, she further noted: “The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless.”
Her new-found knowledge might have remained nothing but an interesting dinner party story except that after only 15 months in Constantinople, her husband was recalled to London.
Inoculating Her Son Against Smallpox
Knowing her young son would be in danger of contracting the disease once back on British soil, she secretly arranged for one of the “set of old women” to perform the variolation.
Carried out without any incident, Edward Wortley Montagu the Younger thus became the first English native to be successfully inoculated against smallpox.
Standing Up to Ridicule
Back in London and with her son living proof of the "miracle of inoculation," Lady Mary devoted much of her time to publicizing the technique.
However, her praise of the simple procedure was met with scorn in most circles. The fact that she was a woman and, furthermore, was advocating for a medical technique practiced by Muslims did not go down well in educated, Christian male circles.
Lady Mary took it in her stride.
In 1721, London became the epicentre of yet another smallpox epidemic and, intent on showing the benefits of the technique, the determined mother invited an audience that included the King’s physician to witness the inoculation of her second child and daughter.
When her daughter, whose continuing health became a matter of medical scrutiny, remained unaffected by smallpox, it prompted several members of Lady Mary’s social circle to have their own children inoculated.
Even the King’s daughter appealed to her father for permission to carry out the procedure on her own offspring.
The English monarch, however, insisted that further tests be carried out around this “dangerous Oriental method.”
On his command six convicts, and then again a group of twelve orphan children, were inoculated in the way advised by Lady Mary.
When the technique was shown to be safe and the results effective, the King gave consent for his two granddaughters to be inoculated; The future male kings of England, however, were still prevented from undergoing the procedure.
Nonetheless, the fact that the English royalty had approved the method in some manner opened the floodgates for the procedure to be performed regularly up and down the British Isles.
Remaining a Courageous Defender of Inoculation
Of course, the practice continued to have its detractors. But Lady Mary, courageous to the last, never stopped promoting it.
She put up with the verbal and often public abuse she received from the (male) medical establishment.
And she wrote scathing letters to newspaper defending the practice of inoculation and castigating the aggressive manner in which it was clumsily carried out by many of England’s doctors.
Mary Wortley Montagu’s Legacy
She also continued to live a colourful life.
Breaking free of her marriage, she returned to her travels, enjoying the privileges her class afforded her. She entertained many of the great minds of her day and engaged in several romances.
And yet, while her introduction of variolation to Britain saved millions of lives and paved the way for an eventual vaccination against the horrific ailment, Lady Mary remains a footnote in history.
It's only in recent years that her contribution to the elimination of smallpox has been discovered and recognized.
As a poet and letter-writer of note, she has long been lauded.
Hopefully, now her reputation as a pioneer in health will also, finally, be known.