This year sees the 300th anniversary of the first inoculation against disease in the Western world. This pioneering work was carried out in England by the aristocrat Mary Wortley Montagu. She used medical knowledge acquired in Turkey in the early 18th century, as wife to the British ambassador, to take the brave but risky decision to inoculate her own daughter in the middle of a terrible smallpox epidemic. Montagu’s actions took place seventy-five years before the famous experiments of the British physician Edward Jenner, who created the world’s first vaccine.
While in Turkey, Lady Mary regularly visited public baths. She noticed that women did not have any smallpox marks on their skin. She learnt of a common folk practice, in which a cut was made in a child’s skin, and a small amount of smallpox pus was introduced from the sores of an infected person. The child would normally suffer a brief illness (a small number died) but would then be immune for the rest of his or her life.
In 1721, England was suffering from a smallpox epidemic. Lady Mary decided to inoculate her three-year-old daughter, Mary, using the Turkish technique. She invited respected physicians to witness the inoculation and her daughter’s quick recovery from the infection. The practice of inoculating children spread rapidly among the aristocrat’s friends and acquaintances.
Sadly, however, this revolutionary new procedure was often mismanaged. Some physicians used too much pus, and their patients died. Patients were also allowed to see other people while still infectious. Some politicians attacked inoculation as interfering with nature. Lady Mary’s reputation suffered, and she died in 1762 with smallpox inoculation known only to a few.
Just thirty years later, however, Lady Mary’s groundbreaking work culminated in one of the world’s most important medical breakthroughs. Edward Jenner (1749-1823) was a brilliant physician, fascinated by smallpox. In 1796 he suddenly realized that dairymaids never caught the disease. He infected a small boy with cowpox, a mild, bovine version of smallpox. The boy then developed immunity to smallpox. Jenner became famous for creating the world’s first vaccine. In fact, his achievement was directly related to Lady Mary’s work. As a child, Jenner himself had been inoculated against smallpox. Where is Lady Mary’s role in this story? She has been written out of history, the typical fate of women down the ages.