1717. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, feminist wife of Britain’s ambassador to Ottoman Empire, is stunned by the Turks’ means of conferring immunity against smallpox, inoculation/variolation with smallpox.
Having been earlier ravaged by the disease herself, Lady Mary is passionate about this discovery and fights to get the practice adopted in England.
1767. Mozart gets smallpox. By this time, inoculation has protected thousands in England and Europe, but Mozart’s father refuses it for his son.
What is inoculation exactly?
What’s the difference—variolation, inoculation, immunization?
Just to review the terms we discussed last time, inoculation is from a Latin word that means to graft into a plant a bud from another.
So, to be precise, inoculation is the means by which to accomplish variolation (introducing the live variola/smallpox virus into the body). Immunization is often used interchangeably with any of the above, because immunity is the intended result.
I’ll use the term inoculation throughout the rest of this post to refer to variolation.
1721 – Smallpox Epidemic Hits London
Lady Mary knew that giving someone smallpox on purpose would be a tough sell in England. But she had written in that famous letter:
I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention [inoculation] 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 them 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 them.
And when the smallpox epidemic struck London in 1721, Lady Mary did go to war.
Taking on the Medical Establishment
Silk mask hiding her deep pitted scars, her legendary beauty long ago stolen by smallpox, Lady Mary proceeded to take on London’s medical and political establishment. She worked tirelessly, meeting with as many as would give her a personal audience.
She convinced friends, including the Princess of Wales, to have their children inoculated.
Already well known for her verse and her letters, she wrote to doctors, she wrote to people with power, she wrote to newspapers advocating for the procedure. Historians say that without her influence, smallpox would have taken a far greater toll than it did.
The famed poet Alexander Pope said that for her, immortality would be “a due reward” for “an action which all posterity may feel the advantage of,” namely the “world’s being freed from the future terrors of the small-pox.”
Smallpox on Purpose
But how could this be good? Giving someone smallpox on purpose. Opening a vein and inserting live smallpox virus into a perfectly whole person? Barbarism! And besides, the practice was from this strange land to the east.
And here’s a woman promoting it.
Dr. Charles Maitland
Charles Maitland, a Scot, had been the embassy doctor in Constantinople when Lady Mary’s husband was ambassador there. He too had seen the effectiveness of this inoculation practice that was used in Turkey. Now back in London, he and Lady Mary were a forbidable team.
Having successfully inoculated the Montagu children and others because of what he had observed in Turkey, he set out to gather scientific evidence that inoculation protected against smallpox.
Prisoners – Smallpox in Exchange for Freedom
Maitland went to Newgate Prison and ran what we might call an early clinical trial. He convinced the authorities to promise six condemned prisoners their freedom if they agreed to subject themselves to inoculation. All six survived the smallpox that resulted from the procedure, and those later exposed to smallpox were immune.
Next, Maitland repeated the experiment on some orphaned children. They also lived through the smallpox given by the procedure, and when they were purposely exposed to someone with smallpox later, all proved to be immune.
The establishment took notice, and in the face of an epidemic, more and more people lined up to be inoculated.
Downside of Inoculation
Still, widespread acceptance of giving someone smallpox on purpose was an uphill battle for reasons besides the fact that it was an “Oriental” practice, and promoted by a woman:
- 1 or 2 out of 100 of those inoculated still died of smallpox. It is thought this was possibly because they caught a different strain than the one they were inoculated with, or the procedure just didn’t work for them. In some cases inoculation resulted in a severe and fatal case rather than the expected mild case.
- Inoculated people could spread smallpox while they were infectious.
1 in 100 vs. 1 in 3
1 or 2 out of 100 died from inoculation. Far better odds than 1 out of 3 mortality with smallpox caught naturally.
Inoculation was practiced in England and Europe for 70 years from the start of Lady Mary’s campaign until the discovery of the vaccine in 1796. (The same was true in the American colonies. But that’s a story for another post.)
The Speckled Monster
The “speckled monster” was a common reference to smallpox. The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox is the title of a vivid, solidly researched book by Jennifer Lee Carrell. (See book’s cover at top of this post.)
This volume will give you an exhaustive look at the use of inoculation to battle smallpox, as championed in England by Lady Mary, and as championed by Cotton Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston in America. I’ll tell you more about this book in an upcoming post when I tell you just a bit about the effort on the American side of the pond.
11-Yr-Old Wolfie Mozart Gets Smallpox
In 1767, Leopold Mozart took his son, little Wolfgang Amadeus, and Wolfgang’s musically talented sister to Vienna according to Interlude.hk. His children could be expected to bring in a lot of money performing at celebrations all over the city heralding the wedding of Archduchess Maria Josepha.
But smallpox burst upon the city taking lives right and left, including the bride and her two sisters. The Mozarts hurried out of town. But in days, Wolfie came down with the disease, as did his sister soon after.
Inoculation was widespread by then, “the general fashion” Leopold said. But those who were opposed were fiercely opposed, and Leopold was outspoken in his “aversion to this impertinence.”
Wolfie recovered but was left with the characteristic pockmarks on his face. He actually contracted a number of diseases as a child, including typhoid fever, as Daddy Mozart trotted his prodigy all around Europe. Some recent researchers blame Wolfgang’s early death on his sickly childhood.
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Check out these above referenced works for further reading: