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
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

Recommended

Properties of the week: colourful homes
Pink cottage
The wish list

Properties of the week: colourful homes

My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum: a ‘daringly sumptuous’ show
Amara Okereke as Eliza Doolittle
In Review

My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum: a ‘daringly sumptuous’ show

Five Love Affairs and a Friendship by Anne de Courcy: a ‘racily enjoyable book’
Nancy Cunard
In Review

Five Love Affairs and a Friendship by Anne de Courcy: a ‘racily enjoyable book’

Top Gun: Maverick - Tom Cruise makes a thrilling return
Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick
In Review

Top Gun: Maverick - Tom Cruise makes a thrilling return

Popular articles

A look back at Johnny Depp’s wives and girlfriends
Amber Heard and Johnny Depp
Behind the scenes

A look back at Johnny Depp’s wives and girlfriends

Is Russian President Vladimir Putin seriously ill?
Vladimir Putin
Why we’re talking about . . .

Is Russian President Vladimir Putin seriously ill?

Are assassins trying to kill Putin?
Vladimir Putin hosting a meeting in the Kremlin via video link
Behind the scenes

Are assassins trying to kill Putin?

The Week Footer Banner