How did the damn Mary get her name?

Cultural journal The story of vaccination pioneer Mary Montagu


She saved tens of thousands of children from smallpox death when she brought the smallpox vaccine to Europe from Turkey. The writer Christine Wunnicke tells the story of the brilliant vaccination pioneer Mary Montagu.

From: Christine Wunnicke

Status: 11/25/2020 | archive

Vaccination opponents have been around since there were vaccinations. In the case of smallpox, it was not only the anxious contemporaries but also the doctors who earned far too well from the disease to want to clear it up. The woman who introduced "Turkish grafting" - the vaccination against smallpox - in Europe in the 18th century had to fight hard against a number of opposition. Christine Wunnicke tells the story of the vaccination pioneer Mary Montagu, who already certified Voltaire as having "genius and willpower".

In 1719, a young boy named Edward found he didn't like the posh Westminster School in London and ran away. When he had not been found days later, an advertisement was placed in the newspaper. The honest finder was promised "twenty pounds plus expenses"; the fugitive is easy to identify, because "on the back of his arms he has conspicuous round scars, somewhat smaller than silver pennies, like two large pockmarks." Was there a little time traveler escaped? Indeed, the boy who strolled lonely through London was the first English smallpox vaccinee in history. He was caught, he survived Westminster School and then led a long, happy life - always traveling and always spared smallpox.

The learned woman - how abominable!

The escaped student was the eldest son of diplomat Sir Edward Wortley Montagu and his wife Mary, daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, Marquess of Dorchester and Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. Being Lady Mary's son wasn't exactly an advantage. She was known as a sore thumb in London and was widely considered to be insane. She wore Turkish costume, also liked the Arabic veil, which she only lifted to sniff tobacco, she socialized with poets, she certainly cheated on her husband, she infected children with deadly diseases and was - and that was the worst - she was a learned woman. "Stupidity is so considered our ancestral sphere that we women are more willing to forgive an abundance of it than the slightest pretension of literacy or reason, "says Mary." There is no character in this world more despicable than scholarly Woman: An insolent, snooty creature that talks!"

Lady Mary's schooling had been, appropriately, limited to handicrafts, dancing, manners, and a little French. However, her father had a well-stocked library. All the forbidden books! At thirteen she commented on Ovid, then on every philosophical and political treatise she could get hold of, directly on the pages, and then put the books back on the shelf unobtrusively. She begged, unsuccessfully, for fencing lessons. It was not easy to marry this girl. Eventually she chose herself, Edward Montagu, a somewhat indolent grandson of the Earl of Sandwich. She was welcome at court, so pretty, a petite, always somewhat disheveled brunette, her chat was charming, her compliments the most beautiful in the world: "The king is a stupid wooden head and would have better stayed in his little town of Hanover."

Smallpox - a punishment from God

She read Machiavelli. Life was good. In December 1715 she complained of a headache, certainly just a female malaise, then came a fever, probably just a cold ... then she fought for weeks with death in a darkened room between wet sheets. Bloodletting, enemas, brandy, prayers. The delusions of fever and the stinking pustules and the eternal, helpless doctor, the handkerchief pressed to his mouth and nose. Mary's brother had died of smallpox two years ago, as had 100,000 others. A punishment from God. There was no herb against it. Machiavelli didn't help, and neither did Ovid. Mary Montagu barely survived, without eyelashes, without eyebrows, and did not recognize herself in the mirror.

"I look over my room tearfully
I see pictures of horror, worse and worse,
there, the painting that reproduced me:
Shred it, just tear off the canvas quickly!
And you, my powder table, where I once had hours
found myself in dispute with myself
over curls, beauty patches,
whether pink and scarlet tones suit me better -
Oh mirror, mirror, another face!
She also gets my jewelry because I don't think
that strange splendor, jewels still save me -
Beauty, goodbye! Adieu, you toilets! "

Mary Montagu

About the beautiful life of Turkish women

In 1716 Sir Wortley Montagu was appointed English envoy to Turkey. The whole family went on the trip. London, Gravesend, Rotterdam, Cologne, Regensburg, Vienna, and on to Peterwardein and with twenty carriages, escorted by 500 Janissaries, over to the Ottoman Empire. Belgrade, Sofia, Constantinople. Before the suitcases were unpacked, Lady Mary slipped into traditional Turkish clothes. Finally a real veil to hide that damn smallpox face! "I hang around everywhere every day, well wrapped in yashmak and abaya, and look at everything that interests me."

Mary Montagu was interested in everything: The Bosphorus and Hagia Sophia, the markets and the mosques, the stark-naked gossip in the women's hammams, the camps of the Ottoman army and the sultan's seraglio with its gardens like from 1001 nights. Her letters from Turkey are the most famous part of her literary legacy. Most of all, she was taken with the beautiful life of Turkish women. "They have nothing to fear from their husbands, because their money is theirs and in the event of a divorce they keep it," said Mary. "And no woman of any rank goes out into the street without a veil; it is impossible to distinguish the lady from the slave, no one would dare to step after a woman or touch her, and no jealous husband can recognize his own wife when he meets them outside. So they can fully follow their inclinations without being discovered. It is a great mistake that Mohammed did not allow women to share in the happiness of life. He was far too gallant for that and loved it fair sex way too much! "

The son, the guinea pig

She learned Turkish on Wednesdays, Arabic on Fridays, and soon she was translating from both languages. While Sir Edward tried with moderate success to mediate in the peace negotiations between Austria and Turkey, his wife read the Koran, shared her snuff with Sultan Ahmed - and learned of a medical sensation. "Smallpox is completely harmless here - thanks to the invention of 'grafting', as it is called. Old women made it their job to carry out the operation. Someone comes with a nutshell full of the best pustular fluid and asks where one would like that a child is being scratched. Then she opens a vein with a large needle and puts in as much liquid as can fit on the tip of the needle, and the small wound is bandaged. The grafted children play together and they remain in good health for seven days On the eighth they get a fever and stay in bed for two or three days. They have barely more than twenty or thirty pustules on their faces that do not leave scars, and after a week they are well again. Thousands undergo this treatment every year, and that The French envoy said that here in Turkey smallpox is done to pass the time, just as one goes on cure elsewhere. There is not a single death and you can tell me that I consider the experiment to be extremely harmless, because I want to try it out on my own dear little son right away. "

Vaccination serum

The origins of the Turkish smallpox vaccination cannot be reconstructed. The legend tells of a Greek woman who single-handedly invented this procedure in the 17th century and then brought it to Turkey. There is no scientific text, no success statistics, no written dispute about this method of live vaccination, which today may send a shiver down your spine; from the beginning, it seems, it was entirely in the hands of women. Lady Mary kept her word. In March 1718, she had her three-year-old son inoculated according to the custom. He fell ill and recovered according to the regulations. Mary sums it up in her notes: "I will do my best to bring this useful invention into fashion in England, and I would like to write to some doctors about it - if only I knew some who are decent enough to touch such a lucrative source of income - they earn too well from smallpox to not do everything to shut up a daring man who would abolish this disease. When I get back to England, I will probably have to go to war. "

"Angel of the Smallpox"

She set to work from a country house in Twickenham. It seemed hopeless. A cheeky person who wants to make children sick? What imported, Mohammedan madness! For years, Mary Montagu conjured up the medical schools, the court, the Royal Society - to no avail. In a scandalous public act, she has now also inoculated her little daughter. Nobody wanted to join. Eventually, however, she found a powerful ally, Caroline von Anspach, the Princess of Wales. She succeeded in persuading the king to do an experiment: six prisoners in Newgate prison were vaccinated according to Turkish custom, and when they recovered they were put in bed with smallpox. Today one would speak of a provocation study. Ethics committees were not yet invented. Not a single prisoner fell ill, but they were still not convinced. The doctors, the newspapers, the church complained and cursed. Then the Princess of Wales unmoved let her two daughters inoculate - and almost overnight the "Turkish grafting" became all the rage in aristocratic circles. All of a sudden, Mary Montagu was a star. She could hardly save herself from visits, invitations, and public appearances. "If I had known what a nuisance this matter would turn out to be, I might have thought twice!" Said Mary.

More than half a century before Edward Jenner came up with the grandiose idea of ​​the cowpox lymph, thanks to Lady Mary, half of Europe was already vaccinating cheerfully. English doctors inoculated at the courts of Maria Theresa and Catherine the Great. In 1733 Voltaire wrote: "Since Lady Wortley Montagu, a woman of genius and willpower, had her son inoculated in Turkey without false hesitation, at least ten thousand children have owed their lives to her - and many girls have preserved their beauty." Because what else do the poor things have to offer? It's a painful truth: smallpox was more dangerous for girls. They were threatened not only with death, but also with disgrace and missed marriage opportunities. Is that why it was always women who propagated this risk? The nameless Greek, the Turkish elders, Lady Mary, the Princess of Wales ... the prehistory and early history of vaccination is feminine. Mary Montagu's fame as the "angel of the smallpox" did not last. One of the poets with whom she was associated, Alexander Pope, who had been unhappily in love for years, made it his business to destroy her socially. It was always just a swipe - at a person he called "Sappho" and everyone knew who was meant. Sappho alias Mary was a whore, a cheat, a shameful mouth, an uncombed slut with dirty sheets, a hideous blue stocking - and she was contagious too. "If Sappho hates you, you can be sure of ruin / And if she loves you, syphilis.", Pope writes.

Mary Montagu left her husband and England. She lived in Italy until shortly before her death, first in a run-down castle in Lombardy and later in Veneto. She read, wrote poetry, gardened, rode through the countryside, thought about the liberation of women and corresponded wildly with her homeland. When the rural dwellers saw the old woman galloping across the fields in the men's saddle, they made a cross. "Thank goodness witches are out of fashion," said Mary, "because otherwise several witnesses would swear to see me riding a broomstick through the air."