Mary Wortley Montagu

The history of Western virology can be traced back to observations made by Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) amongst harems in the Ottoman Empire. The wife of the ambassador to Constantinople, Wortley Montagu observed how through the practice of inoculation—also referred to as variolation—smallpox immunity was obtained by injecting a healthy person with pox puss from a sick individual.

Since her brother had died from the disease in England and she herself had been very ill from it, the young woman wanted to spare her children from such pain and suffering. She wrote letters home sharing her observations. Initially dismissed by racist doctors as “eastern medicine,” such practices were regarded as inferior forms of treatment compared to those known in the West. Thanks to Wortley Montagu’s persistence and lobbying work, however, the practice soon found resonance in England, consequently making great medical strides possible.

The image comes from an eighteenth-century Japanese medical manuscript.

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