You’ll no doubt have heard that Britain has become the first country in the West to authorise the use of a COVID-19 vaccine. This hugely significant announcement brings hope to millions.
What you may not know is that this isn’t the first time Britain has been at the forefront of Western efforts to immunise people against a life-threatening virus. The 18th century aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu revolutionised Western medicine when she brought smallpox immunisation to Britain. The story of how this inquisitive noblewoman became a medical pioneer is fascinating.
Lady Mary’s Thirst for Knowledge
Born in Nottinghamshire in 1689, Lady Mary was the eldest child of Evelyn Pierrepont, 5th Earl of Kingston-Upon-Hull. Her father enjoyed a successful political career and was ultimately promoted to the rank of duke.
Lady Mary demonstrated a thirst for knowledge. When her governess couldn’t tell her everything she wanted to know, she set about educating herself. She read voraciously, mastered Latin and, by her teens, was writing poetry.
The noblewoman was an accomplished letter-writer. During her early twenties, she corresponded with family friend Edward Wortley Montagu, an earl’s grandson who was eleven years her senior. After coming under pressure from her father to marry someone else, Lady Mary eloped with Edward in 1712.
Smallpox Cast a Shadow over Her Life
The couple’s early married life was spent in London, where the bright, beautiful Lady Mary became the toast of high society. She gave birth to a son, named after his father, in 1713. However, tragedy struck that same year when smallpox killed one of Lady Mary’s siblings. In 1715, she contracted the same awful illness and was left with scars.
Leading a privileged life could shield you from many things, yet it offered no protection against smallpox. Around one in every thirteen deaths in London during the 1700s was caused by this infectious disease. Worse still, most victims were young children. Smallpox covered sufferers in disfiguring blisters and robbed some survivors of their sight. The risk it posed to her son must’ve weighed heavily on Lady Mary’s mind.
A Remarkable Discovery in Turkey
Two years after Lady Mary recovered from smallpox, the family travelled to Turkey. Lady Mary’s husband had been appointed British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
The noblewoman embraced Turkey’s culture (there are several portraits of Lady Mary wearing Turkish-style clothing). What’s more, she engaged with Turkey’s residents – and made an incredible discovery in the process.
Unlike male travellers, Lady Mary was able to enter female-only spaces. As a result, she witnessed something that had gone unseen by men who’d visited Turkey: elderly women immunising children against smallpox.
Lady Mary wrote to a friend and explained the procedure, known as variolation (the term comes from the clinical name for smallpox, variola), which was a forerunner of modern vaccines. An elderly woman would dip a needle into fluid or dead skin from a smallpox sufferer and insert it into several veins belonging to the child being immunised. Usually, only a mild case of smallpox followed variolation; recovery was swift. The child became immune after ‘no more pain than a common scratch,’ Lady Mary emphasised.
Encouraging British Families to Trust Variolation
The young mother asked an elderly woman to treat her ‘dear little son’ and arranged for British surgeon Charles Maitland to watch. Independent-minded Lady Mary didn’t tell her husband about young Edward’s variolation until she knew it had worked. The child was the first British citizen to be inoculated against smallpox.
When the family returned home in 1718, Lady Mary was determined to promote variolation. Her daughter Mary, born at the start of the year, became the first person to undergo smallpox inoculation in Britain. The procedure was performed by Maitland, who subsequently conducted the 18th century equivalent of vaccine trials.
Lady Mary’s elite status helped her to persuade the Princess of Wales to set an example by inoculating her own children. By encouraging British parents to adopt variolation, Lady Mary paved the way for the development of Edward Jenner’s vaccine in 1796 (which brought immunity without illness) and the global vaccination programmes that ultimately eradicated smallpox.
The noblewoman finds a modern parallel in Hugh Grosvenor, 7th Duke of Westminster, who’s donated millions of pounds to Britain’s COVID-19 relief efforts. They demonstrate how powerful the union of privilege and philanthropy can be.
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