Published: August 11, 2012
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Women of Discovery: Lady Mary Pierrepont Wortely Montagu
When her husband was sent to Constantinople on government service, Lady Montagu took the unusual step of going with him. Though they only traveled for a few years, she came home with an expanded vision of the world. She also came home with an expanded understanding of the world of medicine; in Turkey, she learned about a form of vaccination in which the smallpox virus was introduced through the skin to protect healthy patients. Vaccination had yet to be discovered by western medicine, and smallpox in England was killing one in four people during the worst parts of the epidemic of 1721.
Lady Montagu herself had already contracted smallpox before visiting Turkey. The disease marred her beautiful face, but she was one of the lucky ones. After her return, more than a dozen of her acquaintances died in this latest epidemic, and fearing for her daughters life, she insisted that her doctor inoculate the young girl.
Because smallpox was claiming so many lives, news of the use of inoculation spread throughout England and across the Atlantic to Boston, where a similar epidemic was rapidly spreading. City fathers in Boston immediately outlawed the use of inoculation. The debate raged in London, with newspapers and pamphlets variously depicting inoculation supporters as gambling with their childrens lives, or providing them with needed medical care, depending on which side the writers took. Some writers against inoculation suggested that the practice was weakening human dependence on God, that it was unscientific and dangerous, or that it resulted from unwanted Turkish or female influence. Nevertheless, many people inoculated themselves and their children.
Lady Montagu spread the word as well as she could, including writing a scathing critique of the medical profession for not doing enough to protect their patients health, while doing too much to protect their own income and prestige.
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