We should commemorate Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose trailblazing experiments led to the smallpox vaccine

Jo Willett
·3-min read
 (Jonathan Richardson)
(Jonathan Richardson)

When we think of the leafy suburb of Twickenham various names come to mind: Owen Farrell, Alexander Pope, Vince Cable and Horace Walpole. Probably not the name Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. But in April 1721, almost exactly 300 years ago, Lady Mary decided to do something in Twickenham that changed the course of history. It is particularly relevant today.

She had lived for a time in Turkey as the wife of the British ambassador and there she witnessed at first hand the process of ‘inoculation’, used by the Turks to protect themselves from the deadly disease of smallpox. They took a tiny amount of pus from someone who had the illness, made cuts on the wrists and ankles of volunteers and then introduced the pus into their wounds. Eight days later the volunteers would experience a very mild form of smallpox. Then they recovered and were immune for the rest of their lives.

Mary herself had suffered from smallpox as a young woman. Her skin bore the terrible tell-tale scars. She had lost all her eyelashes and she could no longer look at bright light. Her beloved younger brother had also died from the disease, aged only 19. So when she returned to England she decided she would have her only daughter inoculated. She knew already that to do so would be controversial. Many doctors, clerics and politicians would oppose it. Regardless, in the spring of 1721 she summoned Dr Charles Maitland, who had been with her in Turkey, and asked him to inoculate her little girl.

Mary was a superb networker. She invited some of her friends, ‘ladies and other persons of distinction’ to visit the patient and word soon spread as far as the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach, who was keen to protect her own daughters. Many were still opposed, despite this royal seal of approval. When Mary and her daughter travelled to aristocratic households to carry out inoculations, people jeered at their carriage as they went past.

The medical profession gradually accepted that the process could work, but they insisted on putting people on strict diets and bleeding and purging them before they were inoculated. Mary knew none of this was necessary.

In 1796, when Edward Jenner invented the smallpox vaccine, taking fluid from a cowpox vaccine and scratching it onto skin, he was drawing on Mary’s discovery. He was inspired by his experience of being inoculated as an eight-year-old boy, by doctors following in Mary’s wake. His experience was miserable, which made him resolve to find a better way. He made the mental leap to the realisation that taking a tiny amount of cowpox from cows - ‘vaccination’ from the Latin for ‘cow’ - would work all the better. In the nineteenth century Louis Pasteur extended the theory to other viruses and, in honour of Jenner, called the process ‘vaccination’. He might just as well have called it ‘inoculation’ - since there is a clear through-line from Mary through to Jenner.

This month, English Heritage has announced it is going to put up six new blue plaques in London to celebrate women’s achievements, while Mary Wollstonecraft now has her statue in Newington Green. The time is surely right for the people of Twickenham to commemorate Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist by Jo Willett is out now (£25, Pen & Sword Books Ltd )

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