2. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

More Deadly than War

1 April 1718, Adrianople

My dear Sarah,

You see I have kept my promise to write frequently. I must confess that I long for a letter from you. For you the constant damp, and seeing the same faces that you saw last week, must of course seem tedious, but I have been so long from such familiar comforts that to me it would seem almost as astonishing to read as my letters must be to you.

I heard for example a most astonishing story yesterday. I was told that the children here never die of the smallpox as happens with such unhappy frequency in our own country. When I expressed my wonder at this news, a Turkish lady of my acquaintance explained how it is that her people have overcome this terrible illness. They do this by means of something the Ambassadress called an engraftment. Every September, the women in each neighbourhood gather together with their younger children. An old woman attends, who brings some of the smallpox in a little shell or box. The young children are brought to her, and she scratches open their arms and smears the smallpox on the wound. They are all kept together for a week or so, at which time they catch the fever and the spots. But it is not how it is with us: the children do not die, and the spots leave no marks. After a few day more, the little ones are restored to health. In this way I am assured that none fear the smallpox here, and certainly I have not heard of any who die from it. It seems a marvel, that these old women can eliminate such a scourge!

Indeed, I should like to see such a thing happen in our own England. However, when I proposed that we might try the engraftment for our own dear little son, Mr Wortley was most strongly opposed, and the French Ambassadress expressed her distress at the idea as well. How could I think to chance the life of our son with the folk magic of some old woman? They are certain that the Turks must also suffer this dreadful illness as we do, even though both admit that they have not heard of anyone dying of the smallpox here in Adrianople. I shall have to keep at it; in time I am sure I shall persuade them.

I must leave off writing now, as I have promised to call upon the French Ambassadress.

Mary

#

15 July 1718

My dearest sister,

Forgive me for not writing, and for being so distracted when I do write. I am still so beset by grief and care, even though it is a month since my dearest boy was taken from me by the same illness which took my brother from me. But I write now to tell you that I will be leaving Adrianople before the end of this month, as the French Ambassadress has decided to return to France. We will travel together to Vienna. Perhaps being back in my own country will ease the grief in my heart.

Mary

What really happened…

Lady Mary was in no way under her husband’s thumb, and in reality not only did she have her little boy vaccinated while in the Ottoman Empire, she also brought the vaccination procedure with her back to England, where she successfully introduced the idea into at least the upper levels of society. She was a fundamental part of the vaccination program which would save hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe, and which eventually ended with the disease being eradicated in the 20th century. (Vaccination for the win.)

Quite literally, it was impossible for the European men to do this: the Ottoman procedure was performed by women, and men didn’t have access to the women’s quarters. Lady Mary did.

Less important for history, if she had made a different choice of husband, she would have been Mrs. Clotworthy Skeffington.

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