Modern History Sourcebook:
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762): Smallpox Vaccination in Turkey
In 1717 Lady Montague arrived with her husband, the British ambassador, at the court
of the Ottoman Empire. She wrote voluminously of her travels. In this selection she noted
that the local practice of deliberately stimulating a mild form of the disease through
innoculation conferred immunity. She had the procedure performed on both her children. By
the end of the eighteenth century, the English physician Edwardjenner was able to
cultivate a serum in cattle, which, when used in human vaccination, eventually led to the
worldwide eradication of the illness.
A propos of distempers, I am going to tell you a thing, that will make you wish
yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely
harmless, by the invention of engrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set
of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the
month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if
any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox; they make parties for this purpose,
and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a
nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please
to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her, with a large needle
(which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much matter
as can lie upon the head of her needle , and after that, binds up the little wound with a
hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens four or five veins. The Grecians have
commonly the superstition of opening one in the middle of the forehead, one in each arm,
and one on the breast, to mark the sign of the Cross; but this has a very ill effect, all
these wounds leaving little scars, and is not done by those that are not superstitious,
who chuse to have them in the legs, or that part of the arm that is concealed. The
children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect
health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two
days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces,
which never mark, and in eight days time they are as well as before their illness. Where
they are wounded, there remains running sores during the distemper, which I don't doubt is
a great relief to it. Every year, thousands undergo this operation, and the French
Ambassador says pleasantly, that they take the small-pox here by way of diversion, as they
take the waters in other countries. 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.
But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment, the
hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps if I live to return, I may,
however, have courage to war with them. Upon this occasion, admire the heroism in the
Your friend, etc. etc.
From Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M--y W--y M--e:
Written During her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa. . . , vol. 1 (Aix: Anthony
Henricy, 1796), pp. 167-69; letter 36, to Mrs. S. C. from Adrianople, n.d.
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© Paul Halsall, July 1998