Lady Mary Wortley

’s Smallpox Vaccination Essay, Research Paper

Early one summer morning in the 18th century a father and son sat down to breakfast. Young Marston Hodgin said to his father, “Father dear, I’ve a bloody awful backache, and my face is a bit flushed.” Marston Hodgin Sr. stared at his son in astonishment and horror, “Son, what ‘ave you there? Those oozy dots on your face give me a bit of a fright. To your bed!”

The first known death from smallpox occurred in 1157 BC, when Egyptian pharaoh Ramses V died with no explanation. There was great mystery surrounding his death, because unlike most pharaohs, who were buried after 70 days, Ramses was not buried for almost two entire years. Many think that this was because either the first time the embalmers tried to prepare him to be laid to rest, his body was still contagious, and they contracted the disease. Due to either fear of the body, or lack of more embalmers, the job was delayed. Another popular theory is that they knew that the possessions and even the body of those who died from this not yet known disease were contagious for a long period after their death, and that the embalmers just didn’t want to take the risk of incurring this disease. We suspect that this disease was smallpox because during a thorough inspection of Ramses V’s body by twentieth century scientists, pustules much like those caused by smallpox were found on the well preserved face, neck and arms.

Smallpox is an extremely contagious, often terminal virus. There are four phases, the first of which is incubation. This period lasts 12 days, and the infected person becomes contagious on the third day. During this period, the virus begins to infect the body, starting in the victim’s lymph glands and liver, and from that point, the infected cells multiplied so greatly that they contaminated the skin cells, and the second phase began. The second phase is marked by an unusually high fever, backaches, headaches, chills and prostration. Still in the second phase, but following by three to four days, a rash appears, and is generally located on the face, the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands, and roughly six to ten days later, the rash becomes cankerous blemishes. The fever returns, and along with toxicity, initiates the next phase of smallpox, during which the pimples can become infected with bacteria. After this phase, the final recovery phase begins. During this phase, the pustules may become crusted, and very often leave scars. The fever and toxicity recede at this time. Smallpox was fatal when the infection spread to the lungs, heart, or brain. A victim could lose sight in one or both eyes, and could die when the disease spread to vital organs, such as the lungs, heart, liver, throat or brain. There is no concrete evidence as to when the disease became common. It is suspected to have infected Egypt sometime before 1500 BC, and contaminated the rest of the world after that.

In Turkey in the 15th and 16th centuries, a process known as inoculation was used to try and eliminate smallpox. This, however, was not a new idea. Chinese doctors had been practicing a form of inoculation in which they had blown dust from the scabs of those with smallpox into the nostrils of those who were healthy. This process usually cause the patient to react mildly, and have a very light case of the disease, but following the mild case, have an immunity (Appendix A) to the sickness for the rest of their lives. In the early 16th century, this practice was well known in China as well as parts of Turkey, but very foreign to most Europeans and Americans. For many, the first they heard of inoculation was in a letter written by a man named Increase Mather, which told of a recent outbreak of smallpox in Turkey that had been deterred by the inoculation process.

Ensuing this publication, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, poet and

wife of the British ambassador to Turkey, began promoting inoculation in Great Britain. Lady Mary was an amazing author, even though at the time when she lived, writing was not appreciated, but rather laughed at. Smallpox was a cause especially dear to her heart because when she was younger both she and her brother had the virus. It took his life and her beauty, leaving her with pockmarks all over her face and no eyelashes. When she heard and of the inoculation process in Constantinople, she wrote a letter to a friend in London saying, “The smallpox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of ingrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women who make it their buisness to perform the operation, every autumn in the month of September, when the great heat is abated.” (Appendix C) Ingrafting a process which was done by the old women of Constantinople. It was much like the process used by the Chinese, but instead of injecting the powdered scabs from the infected into the nostrils of the healthy; the powder was injected into a scratch that they made into the recipients’ upper arm.

In 1718, Lady Mary had her son inoculated by an old Greek woman while the Montagu family was still residing in Turkey. An embassy physician, Charles Maitland was also present at his inoculation. The inoculation went perfectly, and the family continued to live in Turkey until 1721, when they moved back to London. Just as they moved to London, a pestilence of smallpox hit the city. Lady Mary decided to have her four-year-old daughter inoculated. The same doctor, Charles Maitland, performed the operation by himself this time, and it was the first professional inoculation done in England. Princess Caroline had her daughters inoculated, and procedure was given the royal seal of approval. Inoculation was still, however, not expansively used in Great Britain.

One of the main reasons that people were hesitant about adapting this new trend was that they were afraid of possible infections by those who were in the phase of the inoculation process in which they had a mild case of the disease. The other cause for controversy was that religiously, inoculation was viewed as interference with God’s plans. When Lady Mary heard the doubts people had about the inoculation process, she pushed her cause even harder, by writing letters to newspapers, visiting those who were recovering from the inoculation, and encouraging doctors to keep on giving it.

I am sad to report that Marston Hodgin did not survive through his bout with smallpox. He, like 60 million other Europeans in the 17th century died from this awful illness. However, the smallpox dynasty, if you will, is over. A man named Edward Jenner invented the first vaccine to combat this virus, and because of Jenner, his inventions, and others like them, smallpox and hundreds of other once terminal illnesses are no longer a threat to society. Though Lady Mary Wortley did not invent the vaccination, or the inoculation process, she is largely responsible for the progress of them. Jenner invented the vaccination because his inoculation was performed by an inexperienced doctor, and Jenner wanted there to be a more reliable method of preventing the plague. If Lady Mary had not pushed the inoculation as she did, Jenner would have not have had an inoculation, and the world would very likely still be without vaccinations.


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