Lady Mary Wortley Montagu | Herstory #1

It’s a truth personally acknowledged that I love history. A lot. And I love women’s history in particular. History is a funny place for a woman’s voice; the men have been the ones the world has listened to for so long that we’re only just starting to be heard, but heard we are, and the more I read the more I realise that history is full to the brim with intelligent, masterful, interesting women whose names aren’t yet on the tip of ours tongues.  That’s something I intend to rectify.

Welcome to Wonderful Women of History #1: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Lady MAry Lady Mary Wortley Montagu | Herstory #1

Pope Makes Love To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
– William Powell Frith (1852, oil on canvas)

Lady Mary was born Lady Mary Pierrepont on 15th May 1689. The daughter of a an Earl, she was shuttled between her maternal grandmother and her father’s residence after the death of her mother, finding comfort in the extensive library of Thoresby Hall where she taught herself Latin and provided her own education. This early self-exposure and self-reliance led to a girl who was writing poetry in the vein of Aphra Behn, epistolatory novels, and letters to bishops at the age of fourteen; a precursor to the woman of letters she would later become.

As well as various feminist pamphlets that can be cautiously attributed to her, Lady Mary wrote numerous letters from Turkey when she moved there with husband Edward Wortley Montagu, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. These letters are considered the antecedent of women’s travel writing and an eye-opener to the experiences that were being excised from the history books; Lady Mary could access women-only spaces that were cut off to her male contemporaries. Though her experiences encompassed only the privileges in Turkish life, they also allowed her to witness the medical advances that were being implemented;  namely variolation, an early precursor to innoculation against smallpox.

The Introduction of Innoculation

In 1715, whilst still a prominent member of the Royal court in London, Lady Mary contracted smallpox. Though she survived, the disease left her famous beauty scarred and her absence from court allowed her satirical “court eclogues” to circulate. Not a good plan; a heavily satirised poetic attack on Queen Caroline by a heavily satirised character was read too seriously, and a disgraced Lady Mary left Britain in August 1716, destined for Istanbul.

It was the disguised opportunity that would make her name last through history. Living in Turkey and visiting the zenanas – women-only spaces – she first witnessed the practise of fighting smallpox whilst in Constantinople, writing of it enthusiastically to her friend Sarah Chiswell in April 1717:

A propos of distempers, I am going to tell you a thing, that will make you wish yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless, by the invention of engrafting, which is the term they give it.

“Engrafting”, or variolation as it was called, was a process in which the elder women would rub a small amount of fluid from the pox into superficial scratches on the skin. After a few weeks the low-level smallpox symptoms would subside, resulting in immunity to the disease. As she noted to Sarah, Lady Mary was so confident in the procedure that she intended to try variolation on her own five-year-old son Edward and would ”take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England”. Edward was successfully immunised in 1718.

Having lost her brother to the disease and suffered from it herself, she brought the procedure back as promised. After returning to England a smallpox epidemic broke out in 1721; Lady Mary swiftly had her four-year-old daughter treated by Charles Maitland, the physician who had observed Edward’s inoculation in Turkey. Lady Mary publicised the event, encouraging George I’s daughter Princess Caroline to treat her own children. In 1722 the King relented, allowing two of his grandchildren to be subject to the process. Both of them recovered and became immune, and the royal family helped to promote the process throughout Europe.

Despite this, variolation encountered opposition from English physicians because it was seen as Eastern folklore and because the method was so simplistic, removing the monopoly of the trained professional. Western medicine tried to mutilate the process, introducing severe bloodletting and making deep cuts so that it could only be performed by a qualified physician.

There were other setbacks for variolation; In 1783 King George III had his two youngest children, Sophia and Octavius, inoculated against smallpox. Sophia recovered without incident, but four-year-old Octavius succumbed to the infection and died. His favourite child, Octavius would feature heavily in King George’s later hallucinations and mental illness. Octavius was the last member of the royal family to suffer from smallpox.

What variolation did lead to was the safer process of vaccination. Edward Jenner, who was thirteen when Lady Mary died in 1762, proved that using cowpox instead of smallpox (a less deadly disease in humans) led to complete immunity from the more ferocious disease. The so-called father of immunology, his work is said to have saved more lives than can possibly be counted.

Lady Mary’s legacy is similarly far-reaching. The outspoken and intelligent fourteen-year-old grew up to became one of medical history’s unsung names, a woman who looked some way past imperialist attitudes to see the medicine of Constantinople on an equal footing. Both of her children survived long into their adulthoods in an age where 60% of the population would catch smallpox. So next time you’re at the doctor’s waiting for a needle to be stuck in your arm, remember it’s not just the father of immunology you have to thank – it’s Lady Mary too.

1717 in: Music
Water Music by Handel. The piece premiered on 17th July 1717 in a concert on the River Thames, requested by King George I.