Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, early advocate of inoculation

May 31, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

More than 300 years ago, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu faced the same problem that public health officials face today: persuading people to inoculate themselves against a dreaded disease.

Only Lady Mary did not have 300 years of research and evidence behind her efforts, and she did not have most of the medical community behind her. In fact, most of the doctors of the day were staunchly opposed to inoculation. It was not part of their normal medical procedures — many of which did more harm than good for their patients — and they were in no mood to take any advice, especially from a woman.

Still, Lady Mary persisted.

Born in 1689, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (née Pierrepont) was part of a privileged family and lived in grand houses in London. But she spent much of her childhood under the Gaze of a governess whom she despised and we believed the girls should be limited in their education and ambition. Mary believed otherwise.

Her family had acquired a substantial Library, and despite her governesses efforts, she absorbed all that she could from it. By the time she was 16, she had authored two volumes of poetry and a novel. She had also taught herself Latin.

When she was 23, she married Edward Wortley Montagu, and the couple became leading lights in London’s social in political circles. Her brother had died of smallpox — the scourge of the age — when he was 20, and Lady Mary contracted the disease in 1715. She was one of the lucky few in her time who got smallpox and live to tell about it.

The next year her husband was appointed the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and she and her family moved with him to Constantinople.

After she had been there for a while, she realized that smallpox was not as widespread in the Ottoman Empire as it was in Great Britain and other parts of Western Europe. Having suffered from the disease herself, Mary was curious about why it had not affected the land where she was.

What she discovered was that inoculation I can’t smallpox was a widespread practice in the Ottoman Empire. Inoculation involved infecting a person with a small amount of the disease — enough certainly to make them sick but not enough to be fatal. Once the person had recovered, they were extremely unlikely to be infected again.

Mary had the doctor at the British Embassy inoculate her son. When the family returned to London in 1721, the world was experiencing a global outbreak of smallpox that was affecting many people in both Europe and America. During that time, Mary had her daughter inoculated.

Setting herself up for bitter recriminations — something we might call cancel culture today — Mary publicize the fact that she had an ocular lighted her children oh, that few people in the Ottoman Empire contracted smallpox because of inoculation, ended inoculation should be a standard medical procedure.

Her opponents pounced. They labeled her as a religious because she was advocating a non-Christian practice. They called her and ignorant woman who knew nothing about standard medical procedures. They advocated ignoring not only her ideas about inoculation, but also her other writings. Some even called for her to be jailed or to be treated as a witch.

Still, she persisted.

Despite her critics, Mary’s advocacy of inoculation fell on willing and sympathetic ears, including some in the royal family. Caroline, Princess of Wales, had her two daughters inoculated, and many other people did the same. They did so secretly however, and inoculation did not become a widespread practice for many years.

Aside from her advocacy of inoculation, Mary Wortley Montague was one of the most prolific and well-known writers of her time. She continued to write travel pieces, political articles, and poetry throughout her long life. She died of cancer in 1762 at the age of 73.

Eventually, The Dangerous Method of inoculation was replaced by the safer and more reliable method of vaccination. And as we are saying today, that method, too, is a cause for controversy.


Dan Snow’s History Hits podcast and television channel has an excellent podcast on Lady Mary which you can listen to here:

A poem by Lady Mary written when she was living in Constantinople:



January 1718
in the Chiosk at Pera
overlooking Constantinople


Give me Great God (said I) a Little Farm
in Summer shady, & in Winter warm
where a cool spring gives birth to a clear brook
by Nature slideing down a mossy Rock
Not artfully in Leaden Pipes convey’d
Or greatly falling in a forc’d Cascade
Pure & unsully’d winding throu’ ye Shade.
All bounteous Heaven has added to my Praier
a softer Climate and a purer Air.
Our Frozen Isle now chilling Winter binds
Deform’d by Rains, & rough wth blasting Winds
ye wither’d Woods grown white wth hoary Frost
by driving storms their scatter’d beautys lost
The Trembling birds their leaveless coverts shun
And seek in distant Climes a warmer Sun
The Water Nymphs their silenced Urns deplore
Even Thames benumb’d a River now no more
The barren Meadows give no more delight
by Glist’ning Snows made painfull to ye Sight.
Here Summer reigns wth one Eternal Smile
And double Harvests bless ye happy Soil.
Fair, fertile Fields to warm Indulgent Heaven
Has every Charm of every Season given!
No Killing Cold deforms ye Beauteous Year
The springing Flowers no coming Winter Fear
But as ye Parent Rose decays & dies
ye Infant Buds wth brighter Colours rise
And with fresh sweets ye Mother-scent supplys
Near them the Vi’let glows wth odours blest
And blooms in more than Tyrian Purple drest
The rich Jonquils their golden gleam display
And shine in glorys emulateing day.
These chearfull Groves their living Leaves retain
The Streams still murmur undefil’d by Rain
And growing Green adorns ye Fruitfull Plain
The warbling Kind uninterrupted Sing,
Warm’d wth Enjoyment of perpetual Spring.
Here from my Window I at once survey
The crouded City, & resounding Sea
In distant Views see Assian Mountains rise
And Lose their Snowy Summits in ye Skies.
Above those Mountains high Olympus Tow’rs
The Parliamental Seat of Heavenly Powers.
New to ye Sight my ravish’d Eyes admire
Each guilded Crescent & each Antique Spire
The Fair Serail where sunk in Idle ease
The Lazy Monarch melts his thoughtless days
The Marble Mosques beneath whose Ample Domes
Fierce Warlike Sultans sleep in peacefull Tombs
Those lofty Structures once the Christian boast
Their Names, their Honnours, & their Beautys lost
Those Altars bright wth Gold, wth Sculpture grac’d
By barbarous Zeal of savage Foes defac’d
Convents where Emperors profess’d of old
The Labour’d Pillars that their Triumphs told.
Vain Monuments of Men that once were great!
Sunk, undistinguish’d, by one Common Fate!
How art thou falln Imperial City, Low!
Where are thy Hopes of Roman Glory now?
Where are thy Palaces by Prelates rais’d
Where preistly Pomp in Purple Lustre blaz’d?
So vast, that Youthfull Kings might there reside
So Splendid; to content a Patriarchs pride
Where Grecian Artists all their skill displayd
Before ye happy Sciences decay’d;
So vast, that Youthfull Kings might there reside
So Splendid; to content a Patriarchs Pride;
Convents where Emperors proffess’d of Old,
The Labour’d Pillars that their Triumphs told,
Vain Monuments of Men that once were great!
Sunk, undistinguish’d in one common Fate!
One Little Spot, the small Fenar contains,
Of Greek Nobillity, the poor Remains,
Where other Helens show like powerfull Charms
As once engag’d the Warring World in Arms:
Those Names that Roial Auncestry can boast
In mean Mechanic Arts obscurely lost
Those Eyes a second Homer might inspire,
fix’d at the Loom, destroy their useless Fire.
Greiv’d at a view which strikes vpon my Mind
The short liv’d Vanity of Human kind
In Gaudy Objects I indulge my Sight,
And turn where Eastern Pomp gives gay delight.
See; the vast Train in various Habits dress’d!
By the Bright Seymetar and Sable Vest;
The Vizier proud, distinguish’d o’re the rest!
Six slaves in gay Attire his Bridle hold;
His Bridle rough with Gems, his Stirups Gold;
His Snowy Steed adorn’d with lavish Pride
Whole Troops of Soldiers mounted by his Side,
These toss the Plumy Crest, Arabian Coursers guide.
With awfull Duty all decline their Eyes,
No bellowing Shouts of noisy Crouds arise;
Silence in solemn State the march attends
Till at the dread Divan the slow processions ends.
Yet not these Objects all profusely Gay,
The Gilded Navy that adorns the Sea,
The riseing City in Confusion fair;
Magnificently form’d irregular
Where Woods and Palaces at once surprise
Gardens, on Gardens, Domes on Domes arise
And endless Beauties tire the wandering Eyes,
So sooths my Wishes, or so charms my Mind,
As this Retreat, secure from Human kind.
No Knaves successfull Craft does Spleen excite
No Coxcombs tawdry Splendour shocks my Sight;
No Mob Alarm awakes my Female Fears,
No unrewarded Merit asks my Tears;
Nor Praise my Mind, nor Envy hurts my Ear,
Even Fame it selfe can hardly reach me here,
Impertinence with all her Tattling Train
Fair-sounding Flatterys delicious Bane
Censorious Folly; Noisy Party Rage;
The Thousand with which she must engage
Who dare have Virtue in a Vicious Age.


Il y a plus de 300 ans, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu était confrontée au même problème que les responsables de la santé publique aujourd’hui: persuader les gens de se vacciner contre une maladie redoutée.

Seule Lady Mary n’avait pas 300 ans de recherche et de preuves derrière ses efforts, et elle n’avait pas la majeure partie de la communauté médicale derrière elle. En fait, la plupart des médecins de l’époque étaient fermement opposés à l’inoculation. Cela ne faisait pas partie de leurs procédures médicales normales – dont beaucoup faisaient plus de mal que de bien à leurs patients – et ils n’étaient pas d’humeur à prendre des conseils, en particulier à une femme.

Pourtant, Lady Mary a persisté.

Née en 1689, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (née Pierrepont) faisait partie d’une famille privilégiée et vivait dans de grandes maisons à Londres. Mais elle a passé une grande partie de son enfance sous le regard d’une gouvernante qu’elle méprisait et nous pensions que les filles devaient être limitées dans leur éducation et leur ambition. Mary croyait le contraire.

Sa famille avait acquis une bibliothèque substantielle, et malgré les efforts de sa gouvernante, elle en a absorbé tout ce qu’elle pouvait. À l’âge de 16 ans, elle avait écrit deux volumes de poésie et un roman. Elle s’était également enseignée le latin.

Quand elle avait 23 ans, elle a épousé Edward Wortley Montagu, et le couple est devenu les chefs de file de la société londonienne dans les cercles politiques. Son frère était mort de la variole – le fléau de l’âge – à l’âge de 20 ans, et Lady Mary a contracté la maladie en 1715. Elle était l’une des rares chanceuses de son temps à avoir contracté la variole et à vivre pour en parler.

L’année suivante, son mari a été nommé ambassadeur britannique auprès de l’Empire ottoman, et elle et sa famille ont déménagé avec lui à Constantinople.

Après avoir été là-bas pendant un certain temps, elle s’est rendu compte que la variole n’était pas aussi répandue dans l’Empire ottoman qu’en Grande-Bretagne et dans d’autres parties de l’Europe occidentale. Ayant elle-même souffert de la maladie, Mary était curieuse de savoir pourquoi elle n’avait pas affecté le pays où elle se trouvait.

Ce qu’elle a découvert, c’est que la vaccination contre la variole était une pratique répandue dans l’Empire ottoman. L’inoculation impliquait d’infecter une personne avec une petite quantité de la maladie – assez certainement pour la rendre malade mais pas assez pour être mortelle. Une fois que la personne s’est rétablie, il est extrêmement peu probable qu’elle soit à nouveau infectée.

Mary a fait vacciner son fils par le médecin de l’ambassade britannique. Lorsque la famille est revenue à Londres en 1721, le monde connaissait une épidémie mondiale de variole qui affectait de nombreuses personnes en Europe et en Amérique. Pendant ce temps, Mary a fait vacciner sa fille.

Se préparant à des récriminations amères – ce que nous pourrions appeler aujourd’hui la culture d’annulation – Mary publie le fait qu’elle avait un oculaire éclairé ses enfants oh, que peu de gens dans l’Empire ottoman ont contracté la variole à cause de l’inoculation, la vaccination terminée devrait être une procédure médicale standard .

Ses adversaires ont bondi. Ils l’ont qualifiée de religieuse parce qu’elle préconisait une pratique non chrétienne. Ils l’ont appelée et une femme ignorante qui ne savait rien des procédures médicales standard. Ils ont préconisé d’ignorer non seulement ses idées sur la vaccination, mais aussi ses autres écrits. Certains ont même demandé qu’elle soit emprisonnée ou traitée comme une sorcière.

Pourtant, elle a persisté.

Malgré ses critiques, le plaidoyer de Mary pour l’inoculation est tombé sur des oreilles bienveillantes et sympathiques, y compris dans la famille royale. Caroline, princesse de Galles, a fait vacciner ses deux filles, et de nombreuses autres personnes ont fait de même. Cependant, ils l’ont fait en secret et l’inoculation n’est pas devenue une pratique répandue pendant de nombreuses années.

Outre son plaidoyer pour l’inoculation, Mary Wortley Montague était l’une des écrivains les plus prolifiques et les plus connus de son temps. Elle a continué à écrire des articles de voyage, des articles politiques et de la poésie tout au long de sa longue vie. Elle est décédée d’un cancer en 1762 à l’âge de 73 ans.

Finalement, la méthode dangereuse d’inoculation a été remplacée par la méthode de vaccination plus sûre et plus fiable. Et comme nous le disons aujourd’hui,  cette méthode est aussi une cause de controverse.


Le podcast et la chaîne de télévision History Hits de Dan Snow ont un excellent podcast sur Lady Mary que vous pouvez écouter ici: et-la-première inoculation


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