Lady Montagu and the introduction of inoculation

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The British and Irish Women’s Letters database, subscribed to by the Library, includes diaries and letters from approximately 500 women. One of these women is the fascinating and adventurous Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Lady Mary Montague

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lithograph by A. Devéria after C. F. Zincke. Wellcome Library reference: 6994i.

Lady Mary Montagu was a celebrity in her time, as much admired for her beauty and wit as maligned and attacked in print, most notoriously by Alexander Pope, once her friend and admirer, and later her most venomous enemy.

She was born into an aristocratic family  and largely educated herself with the use of her father’s extensive library in Thoresby Hall.  She taught herself Latin and read on a wide range of subjects.

Her father tried to arrange an advantageous marriage for her, which would further the interests of the family, as was usual at the time. She had, however, set her heart on marrying Edward Wortley, who did offer himself as a suitor, but was unable to agree on the contract terms with her father. Her father then found a new candidate by the colourful name of Clotworthy Skeffington. Determined not to marry him, she eloped with Edward and they married without her father’s consent.

The first couple of years of marriage she spent in the country, but with the accession of George I her fortunes changed, as Edward Wortley became an MP for Westminster and they moved to London, where she very soon became a prominent figure in court. She befriended both the king’s mistresses and many of the day’s litteratti, such as Pope and John Gay. This was a happy period for her, but it all came crashing down when she contracted small-pox.

Lady Mongague Letters 1785.

Title page of Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M–y W—-y M—-e. Published in London, 1785.

She survived, but was badly scarred by the disease and added to that, during her illness someone had circulated, without her consent, the satirical “court eclogues” she had been writing. One of these read like an attack on Princess Caroline. When her husband was offered an ambassador post in Constantinople, it was an opportunity to escape her disgrace and she went with him.

During her travels and stay in Turkey she wrote a series of long descriptive letters home. These letters, and letters written during the 20 years she lived in Italy and France, are available and searchable on the database.

In Turkey she came across the practice of variolation or inoculation, which she describes in one of her letters:

“The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of ingrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women who make it their business to perform the operation every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated.
…the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell”
Letter from Lady Montagu to Mrs S.C., Adrianople, April 01, 1717

With the help of Charles Maitland, surgeon at the embassy, she looked at the practice carefully before having her 5 year old son inoculated. Having suffered from small-pox herself and lost her only brother aged 20 to the disease, Lady Mary had a special interest in the prevention of small-pox.

Due to political changes at home they were recalled early from Turkey. On return she decided to bring the practice of variolation to England. She persuaded Maitland to inoculate her daughter. He reluctantly agreed, but insisted on having medical witnesses. The witnesses were mostly very hostile, but nevertheless the practice of inoculating children  seems to have spread amongst those who knew Montagu.

Lady Mary Montague and son

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants – attributed to Jean Baptiste Vanmour. Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Her daughter’s inoculation sparked a vicious war of words between those defending and those attacking the practice. Lady Mary contributed a text to the debate under the pseudonym “a Turkey Merchant”. In it,  she not only defended inoculation, but attacked the aggressive way in which it was performed in England, where the doctors had taken to purging and bloodletting in preparation, then making larger cuts to apply more matter and deeper. She viewed the medical profession with a critical eye and did not lack the confidence to confront the doctors of the day. Her letters show that she was familiar with contemporary medical texts.

There are many fascinating and often amusing quotes in her letters and the British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries database is a great place to search and explore them. The database is available to Library members in the Library and off-site.

Vicky Sinclair

Victoria Sinclair is E-resources Librarian at the Wellcome Library.

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