Lady Mary Wortley Montagu on Small Pox in Turkey
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was the wife of the British Ambassador to Turkey. In 1715 she had survived but been terribly scarred by smallpox while her brother had died from the disease. She was fascinated by the culture of the Ottoman Empire and in 1717 described the Turkish practice of inoculating healthy children with a weakened strain of smallpox to confer immunity from the more virulent strains of the disease. She immediately had her seven-year old son inoculated in Turkey and on her return to England, she had her daughter publicly inoculated at the royal court of George I to popularize the technique. In this she was only partially successful as inoculation continued to be dangerous and often resulted in death and scarring of infected children.
This source is a part of the Children’s Health in Early Modern England teaching module.
A propos of distempers, I am going to tell you a thing, that will make you wish yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless, by the invention of engrafting, 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. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox; they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) 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 lie upon the head of her needle, and after that, binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens four or five veins. The Grecians have commonly the superstition of opening one in the middle of the forehead, one in each arm, and one on the breast, to mark the sign of the Cross; but this has a very ill effect, all these wounds leaving little scars, and is not done by those that are not superstitious, who chuse to have them in the legs, or that part of the arm that is concealed. The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark, and in eight days time they are as well as before their illness. Where they are wounded, there remains running sores during the distemper, which I don't doubt is a great relief to it. Every year, thousands undergo this operation, and the French Ambassador says pleasantly, that they take the small-pox here by way of diversion, as they take the waters in other countries. There is no example of any one that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention 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. Upon this occasion, admire the heroism in the heart of
Your friend, etc. etc.
Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M—y W—y M—e Written during Her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa to Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters, &c. in Different Parts of Europe. Aix: Anthony Henricy, 1796, 167-69, letter 36, to Mrs. S.C. from Adrianople, 1717. Reproduced online: Fordham University, "Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762): Smallpox Vaccination in Turkey," Modern History Sourcebook. Annotated by Lynda Payne.