Blog

Some fatherly advice from the king

Show Navigation
08/08/2016

By | From the Collections

What right do we have to subject our children to potentially dangerous medical intervention in the interests of sparing them from a devastating disease that they may never contract? In the early 18th century several British royal children were inoculated against smallpox in a new procedure that involved a small but significant risk of death – perhaps 2%.

Smallpox inoculation day 14.

Smallpox inoculation, 14 days after administration. Watercolour by G. Kirtland, 1802. Wellcome Library reference: MS. 3115.

Did moral considerations weigh in the mind of members of the British royal family when they presented their children for treatment? Perhaps not, in an age when children were deemed to have the status of chattels rather than independent persons. But there is no reason to think that 18th century royalty loved their children any less than we do, so there must have been a compelling reason to take the risk. The reason of course was the much greater risk of death from smallpox, which seems to have been about one or six, or roughly 17 %, in early 18th century Britain.

portrait of George I in the 1720s by Georg Wilhelm Lafontaine (Royal Collection) and : portrait of Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (1687-1757), Queen of Prussia, by Antoine Pesne, 1737 (Charlottenburg Palace). Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of George I in the 1720s by Georg Wilhelm Lafontaine (Royal Collection) and portrait of Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (1687-1757), Queen of Prussia, by Antoine Pesne, 1737 (Charlottenburg Palace). Images source: Wikimedia Commons.

A letter written by George I, King of England (1714-1727) to his daughter Sophia Dorothea, Queen of Prussia, in May 1724, and now preserved in the Wellcome Library, sheds light on both the fear of smallpox and the urgency with which the newly-introduced but risky practice of inoculation with smallpox virus was embraced by the Hanoverians in their desire to protect their children.

L0081863 Letter from King George I to his daughter, Sophia Dorothea. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Letter from King George I to his daughter, Sophia Dorothea, Queen of Prussia. Dated 26 May 1724. The letter concerns the recent attack of smallpox suffered by Sophia Dorothea's eldest son, the young Prince Frederick, later Frederick II 'the Great' of Prussia, and recommends inoculation for smallpox, as had been successfully practised on the King's grandson at Hanover [Frederick Louis, later Prince of Wales, 1707-1751]. MS. 9212/1. The letter was purchased from Charavay, Paris, in January 1932 (acc. no. 64866a). 26 May 1724 Documents relating to King George I of England Letter from King George I to his daughter, Sophia Dorothea, Queen of Prussia Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Letter from King George I to his daughter, Sophia Dorothea, Queen of Prussia (pages 2 and 3). Dated 26 May 1724. Wellcome Library reference: MS. 9212/1.

The letter is one of several surviving letters from George I to his daughter, with whom he corresponded in French – all apart from this one are now in the Prussian Privy State Archives in Berlin. The Wellcome letter was purchased from a dealer in Paris in 1932 and the reasons why it strayed from its archival home are shrouded in mystery.

Prince Frederick, Prince Ferdinand, Crown Prince Augustus William and Prince Henry

Prince Frederick of Prussia and his brothers by Francesco Carlo Rusca, 1737. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In the letter George I refers to the alarm that he had felt on hearing that Sophia Dorothea’s son – the future Frederick the Great – had contracted smallpox (“la petite verolle”), especially as he had learnt the news via unofficial channels and consequently feared the worst. In fact, as he now understood, Prince Frederick of Prussia had recovered, but the King went on to urge his daughter to inoculate all her children after the example of another of his grandsons, Prince Frederick of Hanover, son of the future George II.

Letter from George I to his daughter, Sophia Dorothea, Queen of Prussia (page 1). Wellcome Library reference: MS. 9212/1.

Letter from George I to his daughter, Sophia Dorothea, Queen of Prussia (page 1). Wellcome Library reference: MS. 9212/1.

Two of George II’s daughters, Amelia and Caroline had also been inoculated, but their elder sister Anne had contracted smallpox in April 1720, and although she recovered she was permanently scarred. The King refers to this episode in his last known letter to his daughter in Berlin dated 12 January 1725. He mentions the recent portraits of his granddaughters that had been painted by the Prussian court painter Antoine Pesne the previous year: the works had been well received even though Anne still bore the marks of smallpox.

Portrait of Princess Anne of Hanover by Bernardus Accama, 1736 (location unknown). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Princess Anne of Hanover by Bernardus Accama, 1736. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Smallpox was a killer that respected no class boundaries, but it was unusual as an infectious disease in bequeathing a potentially disfiguring legacy even to those who survived, in the form of a pock-marked face. It may be that the upper classes were unusually sensitive to this feature of the disease, especially as regards their female members, who depended upon good looks to secure propitious marriages.

Queen Elizabeth I by George Gower, 1588 (National Maritime Museum) Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Queen Elizabeth I by George Gower, 1588 (National Maritime Museum). Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

A female ruler might be doubly sensitive, as a woman and a queen: Elizabeth I caught smallpox in 1562 and though only lightly scarred powdered her face to disguise the marks for the remainder of her life.

We do not know whether Sophia Dorothea took her father’s advice and had her other children inoculated against smallpox. At all events all her children who were alive in 1724 or were born subsequently survived into adulthood. When he became king, Frederick the Great was a keen promoter of inoculation among his subjects. It would be nice to think that this may have owed something to the influence of his old grandfather in England.

Richard Aspin

Richard Aspin

Dr Richard Aspin is Head of Research in the Wellcome Library. An archivist and manuscripts curator by training, he has spent many years working with the Library’s collections, as both custodian and researcher. His main motivation for studying the past is to help rescue forgotten lives from the enormous condescension of posterity.

See more posts by this author

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Related Blog Posts