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The forgotten first lady of vaccination

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The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu, Scientist and Feminist, by Jo Willett, Pen & Sword History, £25

LATE last month there was a mass rally in Trafalgar Square against Covid vaccination, led by a former nurse who was struck off by the Nursing Council in June. She had a large following and her protest was one of myriad conspiracy theories. The language was extreme, with threats against doctors, journalists and politicians who ‘anti-vaxxers’ believe are complicit in a sinister global agenda. Three hundred years earlier, in April 1721, as smallpox raged through England, one aristocratic woman decided to get her two-year-old daughter inoculated, launching this whole debate and saving billions of lives. Anyone who understands the value of inoculation should have celebrated that date, but Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who introduced vaccination to the West, has been almost forgotten. This book about her brilliant, unconventional life couldn’t have been published at a more appropriate time.

Mary Pierrepont’s Norman ancestors arrived in 1066 and within two centuries owned large parts of Nottinghamshire. In the 16th century a Pierrepont married one of Bess of Hardwick’s daughters and built Thorsby, the great house where Mary lived. Her relatives, mostly, fought for Parliament in the Civil War, and became Whigs. She called herself ‘Whigissima’. When her great aunt married a Tory, her father disinherited the aunt and made Mary’s grandmother sole heir to the family seat of West Dean in Wiltshire. Her family, she wrote, had ‘produced some of the greatest Men that have been born in England’. She inherited what she termed unusual ‘clearness of understanding’. When she was seven her uncle and members of the newly formed Kit-Cat Club, a group of fashionable men, nominated her as the subject of their toast to the ‘beauty of the season’.

At the age of 23 she married Edward Wortley Montagu, and they had a son, also Edward. But when she was 26 she caught smallpox, which had already killed her brother. Willett writes with vivid detail about the cruel effects: ‘She emerged weakened, her eyesight severely impaired, her face disfigured by the disease’s characteristic weeping pockmarks. Her husband had been distraught at the transformation in his wife. Her eyes were no longer fringed by dark lashes but rimless and red.’ 

Undaunted, only a few months later she left for Constantinople, where her husband had become British Ambassador. She put on Turkish clothes, made explorations and mixed socially with the wives of Turkish officials. Among her entourage was Dr Charles Maitland, who was interested in rumours that the Turks could protect themselves from disease using ‘engraftment’. Every autumn a small group would isolate themselves for several weeks, then pay an elderly Christian woman to ‘engraft’ them. Willett explains bluntly, ‘As a Christian, her life was expendable.’ She would remove a small amount of matter from the sores of a smallpox victim, transfer this to a clean glass and return with it stored in her armpit or bosom to keep it warm. Then she made some cuts on the arms and legs of patients with a needle, carefully transferring the infected pus into walnut shells. She put the pus into the bleeding wounds, strapping on the nutshell to save every drop. A few days later the engrafted person would run a temperature and develop spots. About a week later they would be well again, protected for the rest of their lives. Mary discovered that two sons of the previous ambassador had been engrafted.

While her husband was away, against the wishes of their chaplain, Mary decided to engraft her son, then aged five, with the help of embassy surgeon Maitland. The boy survived and his father was not told. Back in England, she tried to risk it again with her infant daughter but met opposition from her family, friends, and the medical establishment. She blamed the doctors’ reluctance to experiment on their concern for their bank balances, and wrote to a friend, ‘I may have courage to war with ’em.’

She persuaded a reluctant Maitland to help her again, ‘plying him with a large fat capon and veal sweetbreads’. The little girl was inoculated and thrived. Three members of the College of Physicians were invited to examine her, followed by, ‘Several Ladies and other persons of distinction.’ A distinguished doctor agreed to have his son treated, and a national controversy began. Clergymen preached against it and pamphleteers scribbled. Mary was a superb networker, travelling to aristocratic houses offering inoculation. Her greatest coup was persuading the Princess of Wales to vaccinate her daughters. King George I would not risk the new practice on his sons. The College of Physicians accepted that Mary had been right but medicalised the process, insisting that patients had to be bled and purged first. When they died, they blamed the inoculation. Mary commented: ‘Some fools would rather be sick by the doctor’s prescriptions than in health in rebellion to the college.’

She went on to encourage girls’ education and reform of marriage, and was regarded as the most intelligent woman of her generation. Seventy-five years after she risked everything to prove the efficacy of vaccination, Edward Jenner became lastingly famous for the same idea. Trying to redress the balance, Willett is not an elegant writer. She prefers American usage and we get ‘floundered’ instead of ‘foundered’ and ‘disinterested’ instead of ‘uninterested’, but she’s produced a book fizzing with a true feel for the period. Thanks to her we might even see Lady Mary’s turbaned head on our next £20 note.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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