Do you owe this woman your life?
By Jennifer Rudd
As Britons eagerly await an invitation to be vaccinated against Covid-19, whom should we thank for the introduction of preventative medicine to our shores? Many a schoolchild will have learnt that it was Edward Jenner who discovered vaccination in 1796. But this was not the start of the story.
In April 1721, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced inoculation against smallpox into England from Turkey. This oft forgotten medical pioneer is remembered at Wentworth Castle Gardens, near Barnsley, in the form of an inscription on an obelisk topped by a golden globe – the ‘Sun Monument’. Erected in 1762 it is unique in being the first monument to celebrate the intellectual achievement of a woman in Britain.
While 21st century scientists have the benefit of modern technology to produce synthetic vaccines and test their effectiveness, back in Lady Mary’s day smallpox inoculation was a leap of faith.
Smallpox was the deadliest disease in global history. Endemic in the 18th century, it killed 25 percent of sufferers. Survivors were often left blinded or disfigured by scarring, but immune to future infection. Lady Mary was such a survivor when she travelled to Turkey with her ambassador husband, Edward Wortley Montagu MP, the heir to Wortley Hall, in 1716.
Open-minded and curious, she sought out the ‘female only’ spaces in Islamic culture. It was during her visit to a bath house in Constantinople (now Istanbul) that she noted that the skin of the women was, in contrast to her own, unblemished by smallpox. She learnt about ‘inoculation’, a seemingly miraculous cure to this horrific disease. Mary witnessed a child’s arm being scratched by a needle dipped in mild smallpox matter. The child went on to develop a slight fever and a few pustules but, crucially, survived and gained lifelong immunity. Convinced of the value and safety of the procedure, Mary had her son inoculated and declared it her ‘patriotic duty’ to introduce the procedure to England on her return.
Mary championed smallpox inoculation in Britain from April 1721. Physicians were initially sceptical about accepting what they saw as a “bizarre folklore practice of the ignorant and backward people of the Orient”. They were also incredulous that a scientific revolution could be introduced by a woman.
But Mary was courageous and determined. First demonstrating the procedure on her daughter, she utilised her high society contacts to promote the effectiveness of her discovery. Royal endorsement led to the technique being adopted like wildfire by the nobility of the land, including Barnsley’s own William Wentworth.
Despite the success of inoculation in preventing disease Mary was heavily criticised as being an ‘un-natural’ mother who put her child in danger. Her intelligence was described as masculine in an age that did not recognise reason as a feminine attribute. Her contribution to humanity was often reduced to that of ‘preserving beauty’ rather than saving lives.
Edward Jenner is rightly remembered as the ‘father of vaccination’, but Mary was the ‘mother of inoculation’, taking the first steps in preventative medicine 75 years before him.
New book launch
To celebrate the 300th anniversary Lady Mary’s successful introduction of inoculation against smallpox, a new book The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu is being released by Barnsley’s Pen and Sword.
Written by award-winning TV producer, Jo Willett, the biography covers Mary’s life as a scientific campaigner, feminist and fearless woman. But it also delves into her fascinating– and somewhat scandalous – personal life, including an elopement and relocation to Europe.
The hardback book is priced at £25.00 and can be purchased from www.pen-and-sword.co.uk