Painting ©National Portrait Gallery, London.
On International Women’s Day I am asking you to consider the life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), wife of the British Ambassador to Turkey 1716-18, medical pioneer, adventurer and prolific letter writer. After their time in Constantinople the Wortley Montagu’s returned to England, but left England again in 1739, not returning until the 1760s. During her time abroad she wrote many letters home documenting her experiences. Most importantly she had her children innoculated against smallpox in the same way the Turks inoculated their children against this deadly and disfiguring disease.
Lady Mary had suffered from smallpox in 1715, a year before going to Turkey, and her brother had died of the disease two years earlier therefore it is no wonder she was interested in this particular ‘folk’ medicine of the Ottoman people. The Turks used pus from a smallpox sufferer and introduced it into a scratch made on the person to be inoculated. Lady Mary and her husband returned to England in 1718 and re-assumed their place in society. Her place in high society gave her access to people who allowed her to try out her ideas of vaccination, using the live virus from a pustule of a smallpox sufferer. This was tested during the small pox epidemic of 1721 when seven condemned prisoners in Newgate prison were offered the vaccination process as an alternative to the death penalty. They chose the vaccination. Why not? It was possible death or definite death! And ………… they survived.
The 18th century English medical community thought her ideas outlandish and called it ‘folk medicine’. Edward Jenner (1749-1823), who was only 13 in 1762 when Lady Mary died, is credited for creating the first vaccination against this horrible disease. Jenner developed his vaccine using the cowpox virus and the fact that Lady Mary had been the first to use vaccination against smallpox sank into oblivion for many years. What I do not know is if Jenner knew about Lady Mary’s use of the live smallpox virus. Perhaps he did, but chose to state his observations that milkmaids had lovely complexions and therefore they must have some protection against cowpox, rather than admit that a woman had known about a protection against smallpox many years before. The use of live virus was extremely dangerous, so we must thank Jenner for his development of a safer, but equally effective, vaccine.
Many of Lady Mary’s letters describe the customs and lives of Muslim women. Prior to her descriptions of the everyday life of women in the Ottoman empire this had been imagined by European male travellers, giving rise to all sorts of misconceptions. It has been suggested these letters are thought to have inspired many artists. Perhaps these letters, and the opening up of Egypt and Palestine to travellers during the 19th century, inspired artists such as John Frederick Lewis (1805-1876). Lewis is famous for his depictions of life in Cairo where he lived for ten years. These included paintings of harems. This water colour below shows a new member of the harem being presented to the Pasha. The new member is out of our vision to the right and the Pasha is surrounded by other members of his harem. It is a superb observation of the individual reactions to the new woman who will join their ranks. The Pasha is almost clinical in his viewing of the unseen woman, while the women appear to be more suspect. Will she be a rival? The expression of the woman in the centre seems completely disinterested, almost morose. This painting is beautifully painted and observed, but not something I would have on my wall. I value my independence too much to be reminded of the way women are still confined and treated as mere chattels in some parts of the world.
There is nothing worse than a closed mind and we achieve nothing if we do not share our knowledge. Lady Mary’s letters home provided 18th century society with an accurate description of Muslim women’s lives rather than the more imaginative concepts proposed by her male counterparts. Perhaps her most important contribution to history is her experimentation with live smallpox virus, dismissed by Western doctors as ‘folk medicine’, and for possibly inspiring Edward Jenner. Thanks to Lady Mary embracing a foreign medical practice and introducing this to England, and Jenner’s later experimentation with the cow pox virus to find a safe vaccine, smallpox has now been eradicated from the world.
The 1717 portrait of Lady Mary and her son (attributed Jean Baptiste Vanmour) is in need of conservation, which is a costly business. If you feel inspired by Lady Mary, letter writer, medical pioneer and adventurer, please help. Click on the National Portrait Gallery link to donate. https://www.npg.org.uk/support/donation/help-to-conserve-a-portrait-female-adventurer/