Lady Mary Montagu

Introduction of Inoculation to the West

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was a brilliant English writer and essayist of the 18th Century. She traveled widely and posted her correspondence to her many acquaintances in England.   Noteworthy were her letters from the Turkish Embassy where her husband Edward Wortley Montagu served as ambassador to Turkey. Lady Montagu carefully studied and recorded the customs of the Turks.  Noteworthy was her particular interest in the practice of “engrafting” (now variolation or inoculation, see Definitions) to minimize the action of smallpox caught in the wild. Perhaps her interest was intensified because as a child she suffered through a serious bout of smallpox that scarred her face. The letter copied below describes the practice and her intention of campaigning for this treatment when she returned to England. In England in 1718 she wrote to various influential persons urging inoculation and sent essays to subject to magazines. She had both her children inoculated – one in Turkey and one in England.  Despite opposition from religious and medical groups, inoculation caught on. It was the primary defense against death and serious debilitation by smallpox for the next 80 years until the discovery of vaccination by Jenner.

Letter of Lady Montagu:

To Sarah Chiswell
Adrianople 1, April 1717

Apropos of distempers, I am going to tell you a thing that I am sure will make you wish yourself here. The smallpox, so fatal and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting (which is the term they give it). There is a set of old women who make it their business to perform the operation. Every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated, people send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the smallpox. They make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of smallpox and asks what veins 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 venom as can lie upon the head of her needle, and after binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens four or five veins. The Grecians have commonly the superstition of opening one in the middle of the forehead, in each arm, and on the breast to mark the sign of the cross, but this has a very ill effect, all these wounds leaving little scars, and is not done by those that are not superstitious, who choose to have them in the legs or that part of the arm that is concealed. The children or young people play together all the rest of the day and are in perfect health till the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize ’em and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark, and in eight days’ time they are as well as before their illness. Where they are wounded there remains running sores during the distemper, which I don’t doubt is a great relief to it. Ever year thousands undergo this operation, and the French ambassador say pleasantly that they take the smallpox here by way of diversion as they take the waters in other countries. There is no example of any one that has died in it, and you may believe I am very well satisfied of the safety of the experiment since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England, and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it if I knew any one of ’em that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind, but that distemper is too beneficial to them not to expose to all their resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps if I live to return I may, however, have courage to war with ’em. Upon this occasion, admire the heroism in the heart of your friend, etc.