Mary Wortley Montagu: the scourge of smallpox

That humanity won its battle with smallpox is in no small part down to the resilience of a woman who pioneered inoculation in 18th-century Britain, in the teeth of tremendous resistance. Jo Willet reveals how Mary Wortley Montagu changed the course of medical history

Mary Wortley Montagu pioneered inoculation in 18th-century Britain. (Illustration by Rosemary Smith)

In April 1721, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was shut up in Twickenham with her two children for company. A smallpox pandemic was raging. She sent out servants daily to glean the names of those dead from the disease. Mary had narrowly escaped death herself when she had contracted smallpox five years before, and she had also lost her beloved only brother, William, to it.

Yet Lady Mary knew of a means of protection against a disease that, across the centuries, has killed hundreds of millions and disfigured many more. After she recovered from smallpox, her husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was made ambassador to the Ottoman empire. And it was during her family’s 15-month residency in Constantinople that Lady Mary was introduced to a treatment that, with her help, would alter the course of medical history. It was called inoculation.

Lady Mary predicted that she would have to ‘war’ with the medical establishment, and she was right

Who was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu?

Lady Mary was born in London in 1689, the eldest child of aristocratic parents, Evelyn Pierrepont, later Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, and his wife Mary Feilding.

Mary may have been born into privilege but her gender meant that she could take little credit for her scientific breakthrough. It also meant that she was barred from the Royal Society, England’s famed academy of sciences, further stymieing her attempts to gain official support for inoculation. Instead she spread the word among her friends and, over the next few years, spent her time travelling between aristocratic households across the country, inoculating everyone who consented. At times the demand for her services felt overpowering. One of her most promi- nent supporters was Caroline of Ansbach, wife of the future George II. Impressed with Mary’s work, Caroline had her own children inoculated as a result.

Yet not everyone welcomed her with open arms. Back in Turkey, Mary had predicted that she would need to “war” with the medical establishment were she to bring inoculation to England. She could see that doctors – fearful of losing the fees incurred by repeated visits to smallpox sufferers’ bedsides – would resist its introduction. Few medics, she later lamented, were virtuous enough to “destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind”.

And resistance wasn’t limited to the medical establishment. Her daughter Mary, who often travelled with her on these inoculation trips, remembered the “looks of dislike”, and the “the significant shrugs of nurse and servants” when mother and daughter arrived in their carriage.

The process of inoculation soon became politicised, with the Whig party in favour and the Tory party against. The Tories’ argument was that inoculation took people who were well and made them ill. After Lady Mary inoculated her daughter, an experiment was carried out on six prison- ers at Newgate gaol. They were inoculated and promised their freedom if they survived. When the prisoners did indeed prove that the process was safe, the newspapers opposed the idea that they should be given their liberty. Meanwhile, clergy preached from their pulpits against what they saw as inoculation’s meddling with the will of God.

Lady Mary met opposition even within her own family. Her sister Lady Gower refused to have her own son William inoculated – only for him to die from the disease.

A defence of divorce

Mary displayed similar courage in other areas of her life as she had in the inoculation battle. She was a feminist before the word was even invented: in a succession of impassioned letters and poems she highlighted the plight of women who had suffered at the hands of their husbands. “Too, too severely laws of honour bind, The weak submissive sex of woman-kind,” she observed in one poem. She even advocated “a general act of divorcing all the people of England” – which would have given all married couples the right to divorce every few years – on the grounds that it would save money and plenty of heartache, too.

Mary was unaware that the man she had fallen for was in a relationship with her friend Lord John Hervey

As a young woman, Mary was herself destined for a marriage arranged by her father. Yet she chose to elope with Edward Wortley Montagu instead. Then, at the age of 47, when her marriage to Montagu had turned stale, she fell for a 24-year-old Italian called Francesco Algarotti. Unbeknown to Mary, Algarotti was the lover of her friend Lord John Hervey – and, though Mary and Algarotti were to live together briefly in Turin, the relationship was over in just a couple of months. Mary stayed on in Europe by herself for more than 20 years, before returning to London where she died in 1762.

What is Mary Wortley Montagu famous for?

Today, 250 years after her death, for all her passionate feminism and colourful private life, Lady Mary is primarily remembered for being the first Briton to prove that inoculation was safe and practicable. Edward Jenner invariably receives the plaudits for finding a cure for smallpox. And yet without Mary’s decision in that house in Twickenham 300 years ago, the elimination of this deadly disease – which was not fully realised until the 1970s – might never have been achieved.

As the French philosopher Voltaire put it: “At least 10,000 children of good family thus owe their lives to the Queen [Caroline] and Lady Wortley Montagu, and as many girls are indebted to them for their beauty.”

Jo Willett’s book The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist (2021) is published by Pen & Sword. You can hear her talk about Mary Wortley Montagu on a recent episode of the HistoryExtra podcast

Advertisement