biography · english history · european history · history

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu- Advocate for Vaccines

Vaccines have long been important in our current medical care. As children, we are protected from harmful diseases due to the development of these vaccines like measles, tuberculosis, meningitis, etc. The list goes on and on. Most recently, the development of the COVID-19 vaccine has allowed many of us to take steps in ending the pandemic that has changed the face of our world this past year. Many deadly diseases have been eradicated due to the development of vaccines which allows for better living conditions and longer lifespans. As of 1980, smallpox was declared to be eradicated. That would not have been possible without some of the work that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu did in order to fight for inoculation. As an upper class English woman of the 18th century, most of the public sphere was off limits. This included the medical field where women were not given the education or taken seriously. They would have to trust in men knowing what was right for their bodies. Yet, Montagu was different. As an early feminist, she was extremely bold. She did what she felt she needed to do and fought for the causes that she thought were important. This included the early smallpox vaccination.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was born in 1689 in London to an aristocratic family. As she was the eldest daughter, her expectations were to use her beauty to marry well and become a model woman in her society. Yet, Montagu found her passion was for education. She believed that education was the way for a better life that she envisioned for herself. She wanted to be a part of that public sphere that was barred from those of her sex. “The Careless education given to women of quality [makes it]….so easy for any Man of Sense to corrupt them,” Montagu later wrote in one of her numerous essays/letters. She became an avid reader and taught herself many different languages. She also focused on making social connections with those who she could have intellectual conversations with and who would better her own educational journey. These connections placed her in a visible position in public/political society.

Montagu was a bit of a rule breaker. She was clever, headstrong, witty, and was not afraid of how the public may view her. In 1712, against her father’s wishes, she eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu which caused a great scandal in the gossip of high society. Her husband actually encouraged his wife in her writing career and her goals of making an influence in politics ( as this would be to his advantage as well in his rising career).

In 1713, Montagu’s younger brother died from the disease smallpox. Smallpox was a common endemic in London and other parts of England and it was making its fatal rounds again. In 1715, Montagu caught it herself and, luckily, survived. Unfortunately, it left her with bad scarring and the loss of her eyebrows. The death of her brother and her condition after her recovery had a big impact on Montagu. She became extremely interested with the rumors of inoculation practices in China and Turkey that she overheard Doctors and other intellectuals in her circle speaking about it.

Women were some of the most affected by the smallpox disease. They had to deal first hand with the death of their family members and with the disfigurement of themselves. This may not seem to be such a loss, since they survived after all, but the scarring and disfigurement from the disease was detrimental to a society girl’s prospects. For women of this time, physical beauty was often deemed one of the most important thing to secure future advantageous marriage proposals. Montagu would write poetry about her experience with the disease and her recovery (amongst many other topics that she was passionate about). In her poem, Flavia she writes:

Thus breath’d the anguish of a wounded mind ;
A glass revers’d in her right hand she bore,
For now she shun’d the face she sought before.

‘ How am I chang’d ! alas ! how am I grown
‘ A frightful spectre, to myself unknown !
‘ Where’s my Complexion ? where the radiant Bloom,
‘ That promis’d happiness for Years to come ?

Yet, women were excluded from the practice of medicine or even discussions with medical elite (even though they had almost more to lose due to the disease). Women were often even excluded from learning Latin as well. Montagu began to write a great deal about topics she was passionate about. She wanted to influence others with her writing and it gave her some agency in the public sphere.

In 1716, Montagu’s husband was appointed to be the English ambassador in Turkey. This was a great promotion for him and opened Montagu to a whole new world. She had the opportunity now to travel and she would write one of the first travel narratives through all of her letters during her time there. She took a great interest in the culture of Turkey and embraced it fully. She took it upon herself to learn the language and learn more about the culture. In her travel writings, she wrote about what she learned from the art and the culture. She had an appreciation for the dress and would wear the current styles. She also talked a great deal with her Turkish hosts and held intellectual discussions with them. She wrote about the differences she saw in gender expectations (the good and the bad) to her friends in England. Yet, what she was extremely interested in was the inoculation process.

She witnessed a “ritual engrafting party” where an older woman would inoculate 15-16 people. This was to protect against smallpox. This had such an impact on her that, in 1718, she hired a Greek woman to inoculate her own son. No one in the West had been inoculated at this point. This practice in Turkey was also interesting because it showed that women were the ones taking on the role of doctor. They were the ones trusted with the knowledge of this early vaccination method. This was very different from the way things were in England at this time.

Who Discovered the First Vaccine? | WIRED

When they returned to England later that same year (her husbands time at that post had expired), another smallpox epidemic had begun. Montagu was determined to have her daughter inoculated as well. She wrote to a surgeon, Charles Maitland (who had been present at her sons inoculation in Turkey), to assist. Her letters were written vaguely in a way that would not be traceable if intercepted. This is how risky it was for her to be trying something different behind the backs of her husband and the medical elite of the day. Maitland did insist to have three physicians present, as this was the first experiment of its kind in England. They obtained a sample of smallpox matter and then opened small wounds in her daughter’s arms and legs. A small amount was introduced to the wound. Her daughter was sick for a short time then quickly recovered. One of the doctors present ( Dr. James Keith) was so influenced by this that he actually had one of his own sons inoculated as well.

In order to spread the word of the successful operation, Montagu would write essays about the importance and the benefits of the inoculation. That it would have such an positive effect to their society, would improve health, and would save lives. Montagu and her daughter began to travel to households of the elite and Montagu would hold discussions about the benefits and spread the word about the process. Montagu eventually received support from Princess Caroline (wife of future George II) when she became interested in the results of the experiments. The Princess helped to set up a larger trial of the process. Six prisoners were also inoculated and proved that the procedure was safe and they remained smallpox free. Princess Caroline proceeded to have her children inoculated.

Throughout the 1720s, many other aristocratic families followed suit and Montagu’s experiments were widely reported in the newspapers. Naturally, there would be a great deal of criticism which she had predicted all the way back in Turkey. Some in the medical field did not support it as they would be losing a great deal of money from the fees they collected treating the same patients multiple times for smallpox. They also did not trust in Montagu’s “findings” as she was a female. Some just wanted more evidence. The Church viewed this early vaccination process as going against God’s will. On a few of Montagu’s cross-country travels to the elite households, she was met with looks of disgust. Her own sister refused to inoculate her own son (who would later die of smallpox).

By now Lady Montagu was famous and her writings were well disbursed. The newspapers also associated her with all the discussions about the medical practice. She would address her critics as well through her essays. She clearly explains every detail of the inoculation process and talk about what she witnessed in Turkey. She discussed how thousands there have gone through the process and the good it had done for their cities. She also addresses how she “shall sell no drugs, nor take no Fees … I shall get nothing by it, but the private satisfaction of having done good to Mankind.”

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu would go on to live her life to the fullest (and never to society’s rigid expectations). At the age of 47 ( now separated from her husband), she would travel to Europe after falling for a 24 year old Italian man. Sadly, that relationship did not last long, but she continued to travel the continent meeting new people and learning about different cultures. She did this for just about 20 years. She died in 1762 in England.

Lady Montagu was extremely influential in early vaccinations. She did not invent the process, but she was key in spreading the knowledge to the West. She was the first Briton to prove that inoculation was safe and effective. Without her writings and her headstrong spirit, these ideas and this progress may have taken much longer to reach England and the rest of the West. She also did not back down to society’s expectations and instead found her own ways to become involved politically. She would be viewed as an influencer and intellectual in today’s eyes. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was an early advocate whose work helped make vaccines, like the COVID 19 vaccine, to be possible.

Sources:

Willett, Jo. 2021. “Mary Wortley Montagu: The Scourge of Smallpox”. BBC History Magazine, July 2021.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44766/town-eclogues-saturday-the-small-pox

Barnes, Diana. 2012. “The Public Life of a Woman of Wit and Quality: Lady Mary Wortley Montague and the Vogue for Smallpox Inoculation”. Feminist Studies, Summer 2012.

Montagu, Mary Wortley. Edited by Teresa Heffernan and Daniel O’Quinn. 2013. The Turkish Embassy Letters. Toronto: Broadview Editions.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lady-Mary-Wortley-Montagu

biography · european history · history

Agnes Keleti- The Amazing Story of the Oldest Living Olympic Champion

I was watching the open ceremonies for the Olympic games this past week and was introduced to an amazing woman. Agnes Keleti is the oldest living Olympic champion and turned 100 years old this year. She was a 10 times Olympic medalist and five of those were gold. She lived through a lot of difficulties during her life, but in the end she came out on top. I find her to be very impressive and I wanted to highlight her here.

Continue reading “Agnes Keleti- The Amazing Story of the Oldest Living Olympic Champion”
biography · english history · european history · history

The Strength of Queen Katherine

In this post, I wanted to focus on Queen Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII of England. With all the focus on Anne Boleyn, Katherine is typically remembered for her struggles later in life. She is remembered as the old, unattractive, stubborn woman who was being replaced by her young and vivacious lady in waiting. In reality, Katherine of Aragon was an extremely strong woman, a very popular queen and a role model for many of her subjects. She was intelligent and educated. She was also loyal to a fault. She was born of Queen Isabella (who was the queen of Castile in her own right) and King Ferdinand. She was trained for queenship since she was a toddler and prepared entirely for her role as a leader. She was integral to the success at the Battle of Flodden. It is easy to see why she remained popular with England’s subjects even after the King had decided to put her aside.

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biography · english history · european history · history · Scottish History

William Wallace’s Rebellion (Part 2)

In part one of this series (The Great Cause (Part 1)), Edward I had forced the Scottish nobles and their King to swear an oath of allegiance to him as their “overlord”. As he believed he had finally subjugated Scotland, the English king attended to affairs in other parts of his kingdom. After the betrayal of John Balliol and a failed rebellion, Edward I completely occupied Scotland. He sent soldiers to ensure his rule would continue. The people of Scotland were taken advantage of and abused under this military occupation. Scotland needed a new champion to take up their cause for freedom. Their nobles had failed them with their infighting and military defeats, so it was time for one of their own to pick up his sword.

William Wallace’s background is hazy and was thought to be the son of a minor feudal lord in Renfrewshire or Ayrshire. He seems to have grown up with military training which contributed to his later success. He was a very tall man . He was over six feet when the average male height was about 5’6” (though this physical characteristic was highly exaggerated in legends). Walter Bower (author of  the Scotichronicon) describes him as having “a certain good humour, had so blessed his words and deeds with a certain heavenly gift, that…he won over to himself the grace and favour of the hearts of all loyal Scots.” Bower also described him as “fair in his judgments”, compassionate, patient, and a skilled orator. Yet, English sources would describe him as “a vagrant and a fugitive”, a “bloody man”, and “a chief of brigands” (Morris, pg 303).

Continue reading “William Wallace’s Rebellion (Part 2)”

english history · european history · history · Scottish History

The Great Cause (Part 1)

This month I was supposed to be travelling to Scotland with one of my best friends. Scotland has been a dream trip of mine for a while, but it seems 2020 had other plans for me and so many others in similar situations. I hope to re-schedule, but, in the meantime, I would love to share some Scottish history in a new three-part series. This series will focus on the First Scottish War of Independence (1296-1328). This was a time that was filled with fascinating characters, intriguing military battles, and cunning tactics. On the English side, we have Edward I, “The Hammer of the Scots”. Edward was one of the strongest monarchs in English history, but also has a reputation of being a tyrant. Later, his weaker son, Edward II, will struggle to carry on his father’s legacy. There are some familiar names on the Scottish side such as: William Wallace and the legendary King Robert the Bruce. Along the way there will be a sprinkling of minor characters, including a brilliant sneaky re-capture of Edinburgh by Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray. I am greatly looking forward to this series and I hope it will provide an interesting read!

The Lothians - East, West & Midlothian | VisitScotland
A photo of Edinburgh, which was our travel destination (https://www.visitscotland.com/destinations-maps/edinburgh-lothians/)

In 1286, Alexander III of Scotland died and ended what had been considered a golden age of the Scottish kingdom. At 45 years old, King Alexander decided to risk it all and take a dangerous ride through a stormy night in order to spend the night with his new young bride of twenty-two years old. The next morning, he was found dead at the rocks at the bottom of a cliff. It was a disaster for Scotland as Alexander III had survived all his children and his new young wife had not yet produced an heir. With the throne up for grabs, powerful factions began to form which threatened the stability that had been a constant in the prior Kings reign. The main players were John de Balliol and Robert Bruce (senior, his grandson will become the more famous Bruce). Rebellion and civil war threatened Scotland due to the succession crisis and infighting between the two factions.

Continue reading “The Great Cause (Part 1)”

Ancient History · english history · european history · history

Origins of Quarantine

Our world has changed drastically over the course of just a few weeks due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. I haven’t been to the office in weeks, trips have been cancelled and I have seen very few people for the month of March.  We depend on so much, but don’t realize it until it is gone. Yet, it has this time has given me more time to focus on other hobbies, including writing more for this blog. Across the world we are all going a bit stir crazy in quarantine, but this is not the first-time humans had to isolate themselves in order to protect others.

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Ancient History · Asian History · biography · european history · history

The Trung Sisters and the use of Morality Laws in Empire      

Throughout history, morality laws have been used by empires to place restrictions on society in order to create a specific image and enforce power. Many times, these laws would especially affect a specific group within the population. The post this month will compare two different ancient cultures and reveal how ancient morality laws were used to place controls on women. It will explore how these restrictions were to help create the ideal society that the leaders envisioned. In the process, some amazing heroines, The Trung sisters of Vietnam, will be highlighted. Even in the current era, morality laws can still be found. In the past decade there have been many debates which affect marriage rights, healthcare, and the choices of particular groups in our society. Many of the ancient laws that are discussed here will seem outdated, but it is interesting to compare to the discussions happening in our world today.

Continue reading “The Trung Sisters and the use of Morality Laws in Empire      “

art history · biography · european history · history

The Creation of a City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan and her Legacy

 

Image result for city of ladies manuscript

The female sex has been left defenseless for a long time now, like an orchard without a wall and bereft of a champion to take up arms in order to protect it…

                                                          –The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, 1405

Feminism in the 15th century? This is considered a rare concept during the medieval period. This was an era of serfs/lords, arranged marriages, and a time when women were viewed as little more than property. This period lacked champions to stand up to the patriarchy that dominated society. Well, such a champion did exist, though many may not have been familiar with her. She is considered France’s (even Europe’s) first profession female writer and was popular internationally. Her name was Christine de Pizan.

Christine is considered one of the first feminist figures as, through her work, she directly addresses many of the injustices her sex had been subjected to. She calls out the injustice of their treatment in a very progressive manner. This is evident in two of her most famous books, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues. Christine’s version of feminism in the 15th century is still not like it is today (as she was still a woman of her time), but it was extremely radical for the period she lived through. I first learned about this amazing woman in an art history course in college and she has been a figure that I have wanted to highlight for a long time now. Continue reading “The Creation of a City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan and her Legacy”

American History · biography · european history · history

Humboldt and the Natural World

“As our planet faces irreversible global heating, politicians and scientists are throwing statistics and numbers at us, but few dare to talk about our awe for nature, or the vulnerable beauty of our planet…”

-Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature, quote from “Alexander von Humboldt, an Intrepid Scientist who Re-imagined the Natural World” HistoryExtra magazine Sept 2019 edition

Climate change is an extremely important topic in our present-day world. Greta Thurnberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit this year has inspired as she became a social media sensation. It has inspired people who may not have been as well informed, including myself.  Yet, did you know the dangers of human induced climate change were recognized by one of the worlds most famous scientists as far back as 1800? Continue reading “Humboldt and the Natural World”

biography · english history · european history · history

Book Spotlight: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

In this post I wanted to highlight a new book by author and historian, Hallie Rubenhold. The Five is a history that involves the now infamous story of Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was a serial killer that terrorized Victorian London. In the modern area, it seems his killing spree has almost been glorified through the media and tourist attractions. It is all about Jack the Ripper, his mysterious identity, and his modus operendi. His victims are only remembered as “prostitutes”, but can any of us even recite their names?

Continue reading “Book Spotlight: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold”