Lady Mary Wortly Montague and Smallpox

Whilst researching the Scourge of Smallpox (my poor hero in The Raven Prince, Edward de Raaf, fifth Earl of Swartingham, lost his entire family to the disease!) I ran across this rather fascinating lady…

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was an acclaimed beauty and scholar in the early eighteenth century. Sadly, she was stricken with smallpox in 1715.

Smallpox is a terrible disease that produces fever and pustules all over the person of the sufferer. These pustules can and will erupt even in the throat, the nose and other quite uncomfortable places on the afflicted person. If the sufferer recovers from smallpox, they are quite often scarred with dime-sized shallow depressions on their face and body. Lady Mary survived smallpox, but she was horribly scarred.

This is a woeful tale, but not an uncommon one for the time period. What makes the story interesting is what happened next. For you see, Lady Mary happened to be married to the British Ambassador Extraordinary to the Ottoman Empire and traveled with her husband to Constantinople in 1716. There she observed that the local people deliberately infected their children with a mild form of smallpox by smearing the matter from a smallpox pustule into an open scratch. The children thus treated came down with the symptoms of smallpox on the eighth day after application, but their illness was shorter lived and they very seldom scarred, and of course they were immune to smallpox thereafter!

Lady Mary, being a sensible woman, immediately had her own dear children inoculated. She also wrote to the most learned doctors back in Britain about the procedure, thus alerting them to the only defense against this terrible disease until Edward Jenner invented his vaccination some eighty years later.