Lady Mary Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was born (or perhaps baptized) on this day in 1689. Montagu’s adventurous life and independent spirit attracted attention during her day, and she has a lasting place in medical history through her contribution to the eradication of smallpox. Montagu accompanied her husband when he became ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, sending home a famous series of letters describing life in and about Istanbul. She included in her lively correspondence information about the common Turkish practice of smallpox inoculation, then unheard of in England:

The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless, by the invention of engrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox; they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened.… There is no example of any one that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England.

The story of how Montagu persevered in her pledge to establish smallpox inoculation in England is told in Jennifer Lee Carrell’s The Speckled Monster (2003) — this title description of the disease taken from Edward Jenner, who would pioneer smallpox vaccine in the 1790s.

Lady Montagu’s fame is also tied to her talent for satire, often at the expense of men. One example is her response to Lord George Lyttleton’s “Advice to a Lady,” a long-winded poem which instructs women to be modest, retiring helpmeets, and which Montagu skewers in one couplet:

A Summary of Lord Lyttleton’s ‘Advice to a Lady’

Be plain in dress, and sober in your diet,
In short, my deary, kiss me! and be quiet.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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