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Montague, Mary Wortley (1689-1762)

Montague, Mary Wortley (1689-1762)

English smallpox vaccination advocate

Lady Mary Wortley Montague contributed to microbiology and immunology by virtue of her powers of observation and her passion for letter writing. As the wife of the British Ambassador Extraordinary to the Turkish court, Montague and her family lived in Istanbul. While there she observed and was convinced of the protective power of inoculation against the disease smallpox . She wrote to friends in England describing inoculation and later, upon their return to England, she worked to popularize the practice of inoculation in that country.

Montague's interest in smallpox stemmed from her brush with the disease in 1715, which left her with a scarred face and lacking eyebrows, and also from the death of her brother from the disease. While posted in Istanbul, she was introduced to the practice of inoculation. Material picked from a smallpox scab on the surface of the skin was rubbed into an open cut of another person. The recipient would usually develop a mild case of smallpox but would never be ravaged by the full severity of the disease caused by more virulent strains of the smallpox virus. Lady Montague was so enthused by the protection offered against smallpox that she insisted on having her children inoculated. In 1718, her three-year-old son was inoculated. In 1721, having returned to England, she insisted that her English doctor inoculate her five-year-old daughter.

Upon her return to England following the expiration of her husband's posting, Montague used her standing in the high society of the day to promote the benefits of smallpox inoculation. Her passion convinced a number of English physicians and even the reigning Queen, who decreed that the royal children and future heirs to the crown would be inoculated against the disease. In a short time, it became fashionable to be one of those who had received an inoculation, partly perhaps because it was a benefit available only to the wealthy. Inoculation became a sign of status.

Smallpox outbreaks of the eighteenth century in England demonstrated the effectiveness of inoculation. The death rate among those who had been inoculated against smallpox was far less than among the uninoculated.

A few decades later, Edward Jenner refined the inoculation process by devising a vaccine for smallpox. History has tended to credit Jenner with the discovery of a cure for smallpox. This is likely a reflection of the lack of credence given by the mostly male medical profession to the opinions of women. But there is no doubt that Jenner was aware of, and built upon, the inoculation strategy popularized by Lady Montague.

The receptiveness toward smallpox vaccination initially, and subsequently to a variety of vaccination strategies, stemmed from the efforts of Lady Montague. The acceptance of inoculation among the rich, powerful and influential of Europe led to the general acceptance of the practice among all sectors of society. With time, smallpox vaccination grew in worldwide popularity. So much so that in 1979, the United Nations World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been essentially eradicated. The pioneering efforts of Lady Montague have saved hundreds of millions of lives over the last 284 years.

See also Immunity, active, passive and delayed

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