Lady Mary Wortley Montague: variolation against smallpox

Born in 1689, Lady Mary Wortley Montague was the most colorful Englishwoman of her time—an eccentric aristocrat, writer, and poet. In 1715 while still a young woman, her beauty was marred by a severe attack of smallpox. She had eloped in 1710 rather than accept an arranged marriage, and in 1715 her husband became British ambassador to Constantinople. She traveled often, and is remembered for her Letters from Turkey in which she described traditions, slavery, the treatment of women, and even her experiences in a Turkish bath. Returning from the East, she wrote plays, satires, and essays on politics and feminism. In 1739 she went to Italy, allegedly to improve her health, but in fact proposing to live together with an Italian writer. This was never realized and she moved to Avignon, lived for ten years with a young count in Brescia, then went to Venice, and eventually returned to London, where she died of cancer in 1762.

In Turkey she had witnessed the practice of variolation, which she called engrafting—the use of infectious material of one patient in order to infect another and induce immunity. In 1718 she inoculated her own daughter, and when she returned to England introduced the procedure to the Princess of Wales, who arranged for the inoculation of seven convicts and six orphans. Its success convinced George I to have two of his grandchildren undergo the procedure. This was a triumph, and inoculation before vaccination became a largely accepted but still controversial precautionary method against smallpox.

Painting of Ladry Mary Montague with her son.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants by Jean Baptiste Vanmour. C. 1717.  National Portrait Gallery.

 


 

Fall 2019  |  Sections  |  Infectious Diseases