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Lady who fostered smallpox protection

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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,  who died from cancer 250 years ago on 21 August 1762, was a prolific letter writer, essayist, feminist and traveller. She was born Mary Pierrepont in 1689 and in 1712 eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu to avoid an arranged marriage. 

Montagu became ambassador to the Ottoman court in 1717 and took his wife and young son to Istanbul. Lady Mary learned Turkish, took to wearing local dress and enjoyed the pleasures of Turkish baths. She wrote a series of letters that provided insights into the lives of Muslim women and the beauty of Arab poetry and culture. ‘Turkish embassy letters’ was published as the first secular work on the Muslim Orient by a Western woman.

CALLIE JONESWhile in Turkey, Lady Mary learned about variolation — a form of smallpox inoculation that involved “ripping” four or five veins with a large needle, applying pus from the sores of a smallpox victim, then binding the wound. This interested her as she had lost a brother to smallpox and had herself been disfigured by it. Her son was soon “engrafted”, as she put it, successfully.

Lady Mary’s efforts to promote variolation when she returned to England were denounced by religious and medical authorities, apparently because she was a woman and because the procedure was deemed “oriental” and therefore untrustworthy. She persuaded Charles Maitland, who had also witnessed the procedure in Turkey, to inoculate her daughter. Then, after some condemned prisoners in Newgate and a few orphans had been successfully variolated, the procedure became more acceptable. Indeed, it became fashionable after Caroline, Princess of Wales, had her children inoculated. It fell out of favour when Edward Jenner developed a safer vaccination using cowpox. Variolation was outlawed by Parliament in 1840. 

In 1739 Lady Mary left her husband to travel extensively across Europe while writing letters filled with titbits of scandal related in her own inimitable style. Her pen made her many enemies in society and some of them fought back. She noted, “People wish their enemies dead — but I do not. I say give them the gout, give them the stone.” 

Lady Mary died shortly after returning to England in 1762. Apparently her last words were: “It has all been most interesting.”

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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