Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: A Contributor to Public Health

About a fascinating figure in the history of vaccination.

I had been planning to write today about the research reports connecting vaccination with autism which several readers have kindly called to my attention. Unfortunately, I have had no answer yet to my request for Andrew Moulden's paper, and the material sent by another reader did not enable me to find the publication in question. So... I am not in a position to discuss the nature of the evidence claimed to support the vaccination-autism connection, or the vaccination-cancer connection, or other connections that have been suggested.

Instead, I want to comment on a woman who lived quite a while ago, born (to be exact) in 1689 and dying in 1762. The house I live in was built in 1780, and that's quite a while back for any house in North America. But the lady I'm referring to died almost 20 years before the first square-headed nail was driven in my old house, and before either the American or the French revolution. She was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and she was a major figure in the beginning of inoculation for smallpox.

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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a pretty girl until she had smallpox at age 26 and was left with many pitted scars on her face and no eyelashes. Her only brother died of the disease. Despite her disfigurement, Lady Wortley Montagu recovered her health and energy. (And we should remember that plenty of other people had smallpox scars on their faces at that time, so the impact was not exactly what it would be if someone today had the same appearance.) With her husband, who was the British Ambassador to Turkey, and their little son and daughter, she traveled to what was then part of the Ottoman Empire.

She watched with interest as Turkish women carried out a method of inoculation for smallpox. This she described in letters to her family back in England. The Turks waited until cool fall weather came after the heat of the summer was over. They inoculated children by using the purulent matter from the sores of a person who had become infected with smallpox. Cutting into 5 or 6 veins (on the legs or upper parts of the arms), they poked the smallpox matter into the incision and then bandaged the site. The children seemed fine for some days, developed a fever for a few more days, and then generally recovered --- immune to smallpox. Lady Wortley Montagu decided to have her own young son inoculated, accepting the fact that a small number of children were harmed by the inoculation, and he recovered well--- immune to smallpox.

Returning to England, Lady Wortley Montagu began efforts at public education about inoculation. Her friendship with the then Princess of Wales, later Queen Caroline, was a great support to her work (although it's probably the case that Lady Mary could have accomplished more if she'd had fewer boyfriends, who didn't seem to mind the lack of eyelashes). Because of these efforts, the British public was prepared to pay attention 30 years later when Edward Jenner published his evidence about smallpox vaccination.

Vaccination for smallpox was a different and safer procedure than the inoculation method. Vaccination (the word comes from "vaca" or "cow") used material from the sores of cowpox, a less serious disease related to smallpox, but the process was able to provide immunity against the more serious disease too. As many readers already know, Jenner figured out the vaccination procedure after observing that dairymaids, who were in close contact with cows, and often caught cowpox, never seemed to get smallpox.

When governments began to make smallpox vaccination mandatory, in the 19th century, public resistance began and was in many ways similar to the present small but intense resistance to vaccination against childhood diseases, seen in some of the responses to my recent posts. You can read more about the history of this resistance at (I especially like the cartoons on that web site of vaccinated people with body parts turning into cow organs. Since many vaccines are grown in eggs nowadays, I suppose the modern equivalent would be soft yellow feathers on our heads.) Just like today's situation, celebrities like George Bernard Shaw were leaders in the anti-vaccination movements of the past. It's not so much that history is repeating itself as that confused thinking about immunization has never stopped.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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