Tuesday, November 5, 2013

History of Medicine: Smallpox

In a rare moment when my professional life intersects with this hobby while reading for my book club, I was introduce to Lady Marty Wortley Montagu. 

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
National Portrait Gallery

Montagu is known as an poet and prolific letter-writer. She was also the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and played an important role in the promotion of the smallpox inoculation in the eighteenth century. 

Smallpox has affected humanity so profoundly that inoculating against smallpox, i.e. vaccinating, is called variolation after the the Latin for smallox Variola vera for "spotted pimple."Variolation is the deliberate infection of the smallpox virus to bring on a mild case of smallpox to create an immunity against the disease. 

While in Turkey in 1717, Montagu was exposed to variolation against smallpox through the practice of ingrafting, which involved a process by which pus from an individual with a mild case of smallpox was spread into an open wound of an uninfected person. Montague had lost a brother to smallpox and considered the risk of becoming sick from inoculation worth taking. 
There is no example of any one that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England, and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue, for the good of mankind. (Source)
Montagu inocluated her five-year old son while in Turkey and upon her return to England, she indeed contract doctors to spread the word about variolation. In 1721 when a smallpox epidemic broke out in England, she had her four-year old daughter inoculated by a physician who had been at the Turkish embassy, Charles Maitland. She publicized the event to spread the practice and even persuaded the Prince and Princess of Wales, to inoculate their own children, all of who recovered. 

With the procedure deemed safe after a series of experiments on orphans, prisoners, and the royal family, the procedure became more common as a method for preventing smallpox.