19 October 2021

Anti-vaxxers believed God sent smallpox to punish people. Mary Montagu 1717 changed that!

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was born in London, oldest child of the Duke and Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull. Given access to her fam­il­y’s huge home library, this clever child taught herself Lat­in, cor­r­es­ponded with bishops, charmed her social circle, and quickly decided to become a writer. And she was independ­ent enough to reject her fat­h­er’s ch­oice of husb­and, eloping instead with a new Whig pol­it­ic­ian, Edward Wortley Montagu (1678-1761). She threw herself into London society and began writ­ing.

In 1715, this aristocratic young woman was struggling to breathe as her skin sprayed with deep, festering pustules. She was in an in­fl­amed and even violent delirium. Her husband prepare for her death because small­pox, the most deadly disease in the early C18th, had wip­­ed out more people than the Black Plague.

Mary Montagu with her son Edward (born 1713),
painted by Jean-Baptiste van Mour in c1717
National Portrait Gallery

Jo Willett's book, published 2021
Portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1715

Smallpox, as distinct from the great pox or syph­ilis, was very in­fec­tious and killed one in four of the people who were infected. Sur­vivors were most often marked for life with deep, pitted scars. Mary threw off her infection but her once-flawless skin was scarred, her eyelashes were gone and the skin around her eyes remained forever red and irritated In fact ac­ross the centuries, smallpox has killed hundreds of millions and disfigured many more.

After she recovered from smallpox, husband Edward Montagu was made ambas­sador to the Ottoman empire. Mary in­sisted on travelling with her hus­band and bringing their toddler abroad! She tur­ned the long trip into a series of let­ters home, collected into a volume of fine trav­el writing. She noted that the Turks had almost no scarring from the pox!

It was during her family’s 15 months in Constantinople that Lady Mary was introduced to a radical medical treatment, and in a 1717 letter home, she explained the process. It had long been recognised that people could only get small-pox once. If they surviv­ed, they were immune for life. Rather than take their chances with a natural infection and high fatality rate, older Turkish women in­d­uced a slight case in children by ingrafting. Smallpox caused blisters on the skin of pat­ients so the women took the pus from one patient’s blister and scrat­ched it into a cut made on a healthy person’s arm. This would lead to mild symptoms, followed by lifelong protection. Mary saw inoculations.

When her husband had heard that they were being recalled home, Mary made a secret decision. Her son, the first Englishman to undergo smallpox inoculation, never got the disease! And she determined to bring the technique home, but back in London, her enthusiasm for smallpox inoculation was ridiculed by the medical community.

The reasons were:
1. religious (Mus­lims cannot teach Christians);
2. medical (an untrained aristocrat lecturing physicians?);
3. sexist (a female changing the thinking of men?) or
4. economic (physicians profiting from useless treatments).
Mary believed the medical establishment opposed her for economic reasons!

Five years later, in 1721, Lady Mary was again in a lockdown as a small­pox pandemic raged, with her two children for company. She sent out servants daily to gather the names of those who died from the dis­ease. After Lady Mary inoculated her daughter Mary (1718-94), a proper experiment was carried out on 6 pris­on­ers at Newgate gaol, in the presence of the King’s own physician. Prisoners were inoculated and pr­omised their freedom, if they survived. Yet when the proc­ess proved safe, newspapers opposed inoculation. And clerics preach­ed against what they saw as Meddling with the Will of God. Of course the entire pro­cess soon became politic­is­ed, with the Whigs in favour, and the Tories against.

Mary’s daughter recov­er­­ed eas­ily, thrived and later married the Earl of Bute, a British Prime Minist­er. Faced with this public proof of medical success, friends wanted to have their own children treated.

Edward Jenner administering a smallpox vaccine. 
He'd been inoculated as a child by doctors following Lady Mary’s ideas.

Even Caroline Princess of Wales lobbied her father-in-law George I re inoculating the Royal heirs. He said no grand­children of his would be end­angered until more was kn­own about this strange Eastern cure. The king wanted proper tests! The first test were 6 New­gate pris­oners who were inocul­ated, before keen scient­ists & phys­icians. When they all did well, a second test was run on Lon­don orphans, Eur­ope’s best clinical trials to test safety and eff­ectiveness. The roy­al grand­daug­hters were inoculated & the pract­ice spread. Mary won; her work in­vited others to make advances.

Mary lived into her early 70s, writing, travel­ling and mixing with intellectual colleagues. Only when her marriage to Edward failed in 1736 did Mary fall in love with a brilliant a 24-year-old Ve­n­etian Count, Francesco Algarotti. Al­g­arotti was the lov­er of her friend Lord John Hervey, so the rel­at­ionship soon ended. Mary never saw her hus­band again.

Jenner’s 1801 book that summarised his cowpox inoculation cases
Des Moines Uni Library

Being a woman meant Mary was barred from the Royal Society, England’s famous academy of sciences, fur­th­er dashing her efforts to gain official support for in­oculation. In­stead she spread the word among her friends and spent years trav­elling between aristocratic house­holds over the coun­try, in­oculating whoever consented. Decad­es later, Edward Jenner (1749–1823) showed that cowpox could be substituted for the more dang­er­ous smallpox. (Vacca, Latin for cow, gave the word vacc­in­ation). Jenner achieved all the fame; Lady Mary’s efforts, which laid the groundwork for the disease’s eradication in the 1970s, faded.


Barnsley Museums Blogsite said...

In April 1721 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced inoculation against smallpox into England from Turkey. This often forgotten medical pioneer is remembered at Wentworth Castle Gardens, near Barnsley, in the form of an inscription on an obelisk topped by a golden globe, the Sun Monument. Erected in 1762 it is the first monument to celebrate the intellectual achievement of a woman in Britain.

bazza said...

And yet, still today, it is Edward Jenner's name that is famous as a 'pioneer' of smallpox vaccination. The disease had ravaged the world for several thousand years and was probably a contributing factor in the fall of the Roman Empire. Lady Mary's story is the epitome of the place of women in western culture.

Rosemary said...

This was particularly interesting to read especially as Jenner is considered to be a hero in this corner of the world - he was born just down in the valley about 10miles from where I live. He has been mentioned many times during the recent Pandemic especially when discussing Anti-vaxxers.
Apparenty as a child, Jenner had himself been inoculated against smallpox by doctors following in Wortley Montagu’s footsteps. He went through the whole purging and bleeding process and had such a grim experience that it is considered that he thought: ‘there has to be an easier way of doing this’.”
When he realised that dairymaids never got smallpox, he “made the leap” and thought of introducing cowpox pus into a scratch instead of smallpox pus. If he hadn’t been inoculated, then it is considered that he may not have gone on to think about vaccination.
However, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu should have or be given due recognition for her pioneering work - it is never too late to acknowledge her huge contribution.

Fun60 said...

What a fascinating account of this woman's pioneering research. Sadly never recognised for her contribution xx

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I read about her when researching for my children’s book on women in science. A fascinating story!

Looks like anti-vaxxers have been around for a long time! Why am I not surprised that early tests were done on people not considered worth bothering with, such as prisoners and orphans?

Hels said...

Barnsley Museums

Many thanks.I was delighted to see the Sun Monument near Barnsley, so I wondered if Mary Montagu ever lived there. It seems Edward Wortley Montagu, and his father, were developing great mining holdings in the Barnsley coalfields. And the Colour Forms depict a molecular structure!

Hels said...


smallpox was horrific across the world and throughout many generations. So even though Mary Montagu was not a scientist or a doctor, she found the first important first steps to protecting people from the disease: Turks had almost no scarring from the pox; Turkish women protected children from fatal smallpox by ingrafting pus from infected patients etc.

All great discoveries come step by step, one great thinker working on the findings of earlier great thinkers.

Hels said...


As you say, Jenner made another critical step towards ending smallpox i.e he realised that dairymaids never got smallpox. eventually thought of introducing cowpox pus into a scratch instead of smallpox pus. Just as well Jenner had been inoculated, which was fortunate for his own health and vital for medical history.

You are quite right that it is never too late for Lady Mary Montagu to be acknowledged for her huge contribution. Nor is not the first time that medical history has been rewritten, for whatever reason i.e it wasn't honest or complete in the first place.

Hels said...


I had the same feeling when Ada Lovelace collaborated with Charles Babbage to create the first Analytical Machine. She worked as an interpreter and wrote detailed notes for Babbage, which carefully explained computer programming. Yet who knew that Lovelace published the first algorithm?

Hels said...


the timing is perfect... since anti-vaxxers have all risked their own lives and their closest relatives' lives in this current pandemic. But I thought the Covid anti-vaxxers' conspiracy theories were new-ish. Not at all! The people who most bitterly opposed Mary Montagu were doctors who should have been open to scientific analyses - cautious yes, but not full of religious and racist ridicule.

DUTA said...

Great story!'It shows that one doesn't have to be a doctor or scientist to make a big discovery.
'You can't fight a new war with old tactics' they say. Covid-19 pandemic is a new war, vaccines, though based on RNA not DNA are still old tactics. Like in the past, doctors and politicians are considered unreliable, and so many people are looking for alternatives, as the pandemics is still here.

Joe said...

I did History of Medicine in second year, and knew all about Jenner and smallpox. But I assumed Jenner discovered his important results de novo.

Hels said...


you certainly don't need to be a doctor or scientist to make a big discovery! But if the discovery is to overcome prejudice and superstition in the Establishment, the findings have to be analysed, expanded and explained by professional scientists. Publish or Perish, in high quality academic journals, seems to apply more to vaccine science now than ever before.

Hels said...


interesting timing. By the time you studied History of Medicine in the mid 1960s, smallpox was already eliminated in North America (1952) and Europe (1953). But the Intensified Eradication Programme only eliminated the disease from South America in 1971, followed by Asia (1975) and finally Africa (1977). Students should still have been very concerned about the history and spread of smallpox vaccinations.


Andrew said...

Absolutely amazing. I knew about how the inoculation was found but not by whom. Take that punch on the nose you anti vaxxers.

Hels said...


I was upset that a woman was largely ignored because of her gender, at a time when her knowledge could have eventually saved squillions of lives. But I was most upset that the medical profession so ridiculed scientific progress that the rest of the community was compromised. Of course there might have been medical mistakes made over the decades, but the anti vaxxers today seem to be repeating exactly the same b.s as C18th conspiracies:
Religious objectors believed that the vaccine was unChristian because it came from an animal.
Suspicious sceptics alleged that smallpox resulted from decaying matter in the atmosphere.
Parents said they'd rather their children died than be forced by Government to inject them etc etc

All b.s, but still persuading some 10% of the population :(

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - so true of that time, and even now ... how on earth human beings could ignore half of the population and their ideas? A position many of us today couldn't deal with ...

I'd love to read the book - so I will note for a future library withdrawl ... fascinating person - thanks for highlighting her. Cheers Hilary

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is hard to read about letters, salons, or virtually anything about any 18th Century celebrities without encountering Lady Montagu--her charm, wit, vivacity, remarks, enterprise, intelligence, etc. This makes it somewhat surprising that they were not willing to take her seriously about such a deadly earnest matter as smallpox. However, this was par for the course for all intellectual women of that period--no one took them seriously, and even when they proved themselves they were constantly belittled--look at Mrs. Thrale, Fanny Burney, and so many others.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde. Obrigado pela excelente aula de história. Através do seu trabalho aprendo cada vez mais.

Hels said...


Very pleased you are happy to read the suggested book. I add suggested reading because:
a] I prefer my posts to be no longer than 950 words, so it is inevitable that some information will have to be omitted. And
b] with controversial topics (like anti-vaxxers), I hope the reader has access to independent balance.

Hels said...


it is an important topic, isn't it. Even, or especially after 300 years.

Hels said...


yes! intellectuals, especially women, were unlikely to be taken notice of, at least in important disciplines. But if scientists didn't take Lady Mary Montagu's theories at face value at the time, the proper response would have been for the scientists to test, retest and analyse her theories themselves. Then they could have honestly reported either that Lady Mary was talking nonsense, or that her vaccine theories were tapping into something important.

CherryPie said...

I had only ever heard of Jenner until last year when I walking magazine that I subscribe mentioned her discovery.

I have been to the Jenner museum, it is fascinating. Mary should be added into the museum as being a key person in the devlopment of what later became vaccines.

Hels said...


you are one of the first people who said they have seen the house-museum in Berkeley... well done! I loved the architecture and gardens.

When Edward Jenner bought the house in the 1780s, little did he know how important the place would become. But he was doing what were considered the first EVER vaccinations there, showing the entire medical world the potential for smallpox eradication for the FIRST time. You are quite right... it wouldn't take away from Dr Jenner's fame if Lady Mary Montagu's contribution was also displayed.