It began as headache, and quickly overtook her with fever. She was confined to bed—too weak to speak and barely able to lift a finger. Then red bumps popped up on her mouth and tongue: telltale signs of the deadly disease sweeping the continent. She despaired for her life as the bumps swelled into sores and then blistered open, leaking pus into her mouth and down her throat.

With alarming speed, a rash flared up on her face, crept down her arms, and covered her body in pimples. When awake, the minutes dragged by slowly, and she wondered if each hour was her last. At night, her fitful sleep was tormented by nightmares. Anytime her caretakers dared to come near her, they murmured amongst themselves in hushed, worried tones.

About a week-and-a-half after appearing, the boils on her skin crusted over with blood-red scabs, and the fever subsided. She was well enough to talk with her physician who assured her the worst of the sickness had passed. While grateful that death had not taken her, she felt only sadness as she inspected the ugly scabs dotting her arms and legs.

Day by day, the scabs flaked off of her skin until they were gone completely. But they left pockmarks as a grim reminder of their residence. Although she had regained her health, she would bear scars on her face for the rest of her life.

Smallpox Epidemic

The lady was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and the disease she had contracted was smallpox. In 18th century Europe, smallpox ran rampant, indiscriminately taking the lives of kings and peasants alike. One of ten babies in France and Sweden perished from smallpox, as did one of seven infants in Russia. Highly contagious and untreatable, smallpox killed 400,000 Europeans per year during the epidemic’s peak. Who knows what fate would have befallen Europe without the courageous activism of Mary Wortley Montagu, a smallpox survivor who equipped the continent to defend against the disease?

An Eye for Solutions

In 1717 Englishwoman Mary Wortley Montagu found herself in Istanbul on account of her husband’s job as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. While there, she was astonished by the absence of smallpox—a disease she had endured two years earlier. After making several inquiries, Montagu discovered the method used by the Turks to fend off the disease. Elderly women collected ooze from the infections of a victim with a minor case of smallpox. Then, the women assembled their family members. One by one, each person was given a small cut on the arm, and a tiny dose of the smallpox virus was inserted into the wound. The people being inoculated briefly fell ill with a mild form of smallpox, but they recovered quickly having gained immunity to the ailment.

Having discovered a deterrent for smallpox, Montagu wasted no time inoculating her 5-year old son. Observing the success of inoculation in Turkish society and witnessing its effects on her own child, Montagu resolved to equip physicians back in England with the knowledge to prevent smallpox.

Proving Her Case

While Lady Montagu had the advantage of being a well-connected aristocrat, she faced two obstacles to spreading the word about smallpox prevention. First, she was a woman at a time when men dominated society. Second, she had no medical credentials. Consequently, she had a tough time getting her message across to prominent doctors in Britain.

Insistent of the benefits of inoculation, Lady Montagu finally was able to convince physicians from the royal court to be on hand as she immunized her 4-year old daughter. The procedure was a success and made an impression on the doctors in attendance. Even so, they had reservations about adopting inoculation as standard practice for protecting against smallpox.

Continued lobbying by Lady Montague persuaded prominent surgeons to test pilot inoculation on prisoners. The inmates were granted pardon in exchange for their participation in the experiment. Each of the convicts was injected with smallpox and then placed under observation. All of them developed resistance to the disease.

Spreading the Solution

The experiment on prisoners added credibility to Lady Montagu’s claims and won over many members of the royal court. One in particular, the Princess of Wales, pledged her support for the cause. Bolstered by her patronage, Lady Montagu was able to publicize smallpox inoculation throughout the British Isles, and in a few short years, inoculation became standard practice throughout England.

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