Who was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu?
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 This medical breakthrough, which she promoted widely (later superseded by Edward Jenner's vaccination), was the first time in Western medicine that antibodies were created to secure immunity from disease.
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, she 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 (modern Istanbul).
Insights from the Ottoman capital
Living in Constantinople, Lady Mary had access to harems, that is the women’s living quarters.
Comparing Turkish women to her 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 had the British Embassy’s surgeon inoculate her young son. Back home in 1721, while a global smallpox epidemic was killing people from Britain to Boston, Massachusetts, she had him inoculate her daughter (born in Turkey), and publicised the benefits of inoculation against bitter hostility, including physical violence.
Opponents of the procedure derided it as oriental, irreligious, and a fad of ignorant women, so Lady Mary's fame for it was both mixed and short-lived.
Although only published after her lifetime, her Embassy Letters remain an important source for historians of the period.