In Review

The Pioneering Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Jo Willett’s brisk and witty biography about the inoculation campaigner

The Pioneering Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Jo Willett

In April 1721, at a villa in Twickenham, a doctor named Charles Maitland deliberately scratched the skin of a three-year-old girl, and rubbed into the wounds pus he had taken from the sores of a smallpox victim. It was the first time anyone in England had been inoculated, said Lucasta Miller in The Daily Telegraph – and the person who made it happen was the child’s mother, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the subject of this “passionate” biography. Lady Mary had come across the procedure while living in Constantinople, during her husband’s posting as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Known at the time as “engrafting”, the practice was common in Turkey, where the pus would be put into walnut shells and strapped onto the patient’s cuts. About a week later, patients would develop a mild fever – and be left with “lifelong immunity”.

Mary “discovered the technique too late to use it on herself”, said Hugh Thomson in The Spectator. Once a “court beauty”, she had contracted smallpox in her 20s – leaving her with a scarred face and without eyebrows, resulting in what contemporaries described as the “Wortley stare”. But she became a campaigner for the procedure, performing it on aristocratic friends and persuading Princess Caroline (the wife of the future George II) to inoculate the royal children. Doctors sneered at first, but it was endorsed by the Royal College of Physicians in 1755 – and in the 1790s Edward Jenner drew on the practice when creating the first smallpox vaccine.

Lady Mary’s achievements weren’t limited to medicine: she was also an accomplished writer whose “wonderful” letters from Turkey are still admired today. Jo Willett’s brisk and witty biography is a fitting tribute to “one of the most remarkable women of the 18th century”.

Pen & Sword 288pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

The Pioneering Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
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