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Who was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu?

Painting of Lady Mary Pierrepont, later Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) by after Jonathan Richardson the younger. A three-quarter length portrait showing Lady Mary standing, wearing a black dress.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu | © National Trust Images

Born in 1689, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (née Pierrepont) was an English aristocrat and lady of letters. More important than her literary achievements, however, Lady Montagu was responsible for the introduction of the smallpox inoculation to Britain and Western Europe. This medical breakthrough which she promoted widely, and was later superseded by Edward Jenner's vaccination, was the first time in Western medicine that antibodies were created to secure immunity from disease.

Lady Mary’s early years

Born in London, Lady Mary Pierrepont was raised in grand style in houses belonging to her family. From an early age she was keen to receive a better education than was thought appropriate for girls of her time, and social class. Writing later in life, Lady Mary describes visiting her family’s library to ‘steal’ her education, away from the gaze of a despised governess.

By the time she was 16 she had written two volumes of poetry, a short novel, and taught herself Latin.

Family success… and tragedy

Aged 23, Lady Mary eloped to marry Edward Wortley Montagu, and they moved to London. A popular socialite, she was soon to be found at each of the two separate and mutually hostile courts of King George I and the future George II.

At this time, her only brother died from smallpox, aged 20. Lady Mary also contracted the disease in 1715 but recovered against expectations. In 1716 her husband was appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman empire and they moved to Constantinople, now known as Istanbul.

Insights from the Ottoman capital

Living in Constantinople, Lady Mary had access to harems, the part of a household reserved for use as women’s living quarters.

Comparing Turkish women to her experience of life in England she wrote: ‘Turkish Ladys [sic] don’t commit one sin the less for not being Christians ... 'Tis very easy to see they have more Liberty than we have …’.

With her own family afflicted by smallpox, Lady Mary was pleased to discover inoculation against smallpox was widespread in the Ottoman empire. The method was to introduce the smallpox virus to an uninfected person, thereby providing immunity from the disease.

Lady Mary’s Legacy

Lady Mary had the British Embassy’s surgeon inoculate her young son. Back home in 1721, while a smallpox epidemic was taking the lives of people around the world, she had him inoculate her daughter, who was born in Turkey, and publicised the benefits of inoculation. Her efforts were met with bitter hostility, including physical violence.

Opponents of the procedure derided it as oriental, irreligious, and a fad of ignorant women, making Lady Mary's fame at the time both mixed and short-lived.

Although only published after her lifetime, her Embassy Letters remain an important source for historians of the period.

The sun monument at Wentworth Castle Gardens, Yorkshire. An obelisk with a gold ball on top, dedicated to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
The Sun Monument, dedicated to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

A monument to Lady Mary

An obelisk erected in Wentworth Castle Gardens by Thomas Wentworth was later rededicated by his son William in honour of her efforts to inoculate children against smallpox. A symbol of Mary’s achievements, it is believed to be the oldest monument in the country dedicated to a non-royal woman.

About the author

Eamonn Gearon is an author and historian at the University of Oxford, specialising in the Middle East from the dawn of Islam to the present day. His current research focuses on military intelligence in the Middle East during the First World War, and his work also explores the influence of the Middle East on Britain over the past 1,400 years.

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