10 November 2020

A monument in Lichfield
Cathedral recalls pioneer
in medical inoculations

The monument to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) by the West Door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Reports over the last day or two of a breakthrough in the scientific race to find a coronavirus vaccine has raised hopes of an immunisation programme before Christmas, starting with elderly people in care homes.

The outbursts of hope are reflected in the public response and on the stockmarkets. I wonder whether there were similar outbursts of joy in the mid-18th century when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced the smallpox inoculation to Britain about 300 years ago, following her return from Turkey in 1718.

A monument beside the West Door in Lichfield Cathedral commemorates Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), who is remembered for her letters, her descriptions of her travels in the Ottoman Empire while her husband was the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey, and especially for introducing the smallpox inoculation to Britain from Turkey.

She was born Lady Mary Pierrepont in 1689, a daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull.

By 1710, Lady Mary had two possible suitors to choose from: Sir Edward Wortley-Montagu (1678-1761), MP for Huntingdon (1705-1713), and Clotworthy Skeffington, MP for Antrim (1703-1714) and, from 1714, the 4th Viscount Massereene in the Irish peerage.

To avoid marriage to Skeffington, Mary eloped with Montagu, and they probably married on 23 August 1712. The Montagus and Harringtons, two inter-related families from Northamptonshire, were at the heart of the early years of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. James Montagu (1568-1618) was the first Master of Sidney Sussex and became Dean of Lichfield in 1603-1604.

Meanwhile, on 9 September 1713, Clotworthy Skeffington married Lady Catherine Chichester, sister of Arthur Chichester (1695-1757), 4th Earl of Donegall. The Skeffington family were the original proprietors of Fisherwick Park, between Lichfield and Tamworth. In the 1580s, William Comberford married Mary Skeffington, his first wife and a daughter of William Skeffington of Fisherwick.

This William Comberford entertained the future Charles I as his guest at the Moat House in Lichfield Street, Tamworth, in August 1619. The Skeffington family acquired Comberford Hall in the first half of the 18th century. Both Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall were bought by the Earls of Donegall in 1789.

Mary Wortley-Montagu’s brother died of smallpox in 1713, and her own famous beauty had been marred by a bout of smallpox in 1715, although she survived. A year later, Edward Wortley-Montagu was appointed the British Ambassador to Constantinople in 1716. She travelled with to Vienna in August, and from there they travelled on to Adrianople and Constantinople.

Edward Wortley-Montagu was recalled to London in 1717, but the couple, nevertheless, remained at Constantinople until 1718. They finally set sail for England, travelled through the Mediterranean, and arrived back in London on 2 October 1718.

Edward Wortley-Montagu’s coat-of-arms at the Wortley Almshouses in Peterborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Her account of this voyage and of her observations of Turkish life, including her experiences in a Turkish bath, are often credited as an inspiration for subsequent female travellers and writers and for Orientalist art. During her visit, she was sincerely charmed by the beauty and hospitality of the Ottoman women she encountered, and she recorded their lives and thoughts.

In her writings, she praised Islam for what they saw as its rational approach to theology, for its strict monotheism, and for its teaching and practice of religious tolerance. She saw Islam as a source of the Enlightenment, and claimed the Qur'an was ‘the purest morality delivered in the very best language.’

She also returned to England with knowledge of the Ottoman practice of inoculation against smallpox, and defied convention by introducing smallpox inoculation to Western medicine. At the time, smallpox was a devastating disease. On average, three out of every 10 people who got it died. Those who survived were usually left with scars, which were sometimes severe.

In April 1721, when a smallpox epidemic struck England, she had her daughter Mary inoculated by Dr Charles Maitland, the same physician who had inoculated her son Edward at the Embassy in Constantinople in 1715. She publicised the event, and it was the first such operation in Britain.

Lady Mary’s daughter Mary married the future Prime Minister, John Stuart (1713-1792), 3rd Earl of Bute, in 1736, despite her parents’ disapproval of the match. Her great-grandson, Henry Villiers-Stuart (1803-1874), inherited Dromana House at Villierstown, near Cappoquin, Co Waterford, from his mother, was MP for Co Waterford (1826-1830), and became 1st Baron Stuart de Decies in 1839.

Meanwhile, in 1736, the year her daughter married, Mary began an affair with Count Francesco Algarotti. She left England in 1739 and went to live with Algarotti in Venice. Their relationship ended in 1741, but she continued to travel extensively, visiting Florence, Rome, Genoa and Geneva and Avignon as well as Venice.

During all this time, Sir Edward Wortley-Montagu was MP for Huntingdon once again (1722-1734) and then for Peterborough (1734-1761).

When Edward died in 1761, Mary left Venice for England. She arrived back in London in January 1762, and died on 21 August 1762.

However, inoculation was not as safe as vaccination against smallpox. But vaccination did not begin on any thorough scale until 1796, when Dr Edward Jenner noted how milkmaids who got cowpox did not show any symptoms of smallpox after variolation. Janet Parker, a medical photographer at the Birmingham University Medical School, was the last person to die of smallpox when she died on 11 September 1978.

A monument to Lady Mary was erected beside the west door in Lichfield Cathedral in 1789 by Henrietta Inge, widow of Theodore William Inge (1711-1753) of Thorpe Constantine, near Lichfield. Yet the only potential family connections she might have had with Lichfield that I have been able to trace may have been through her jilted suitor, Clotworthy Skeffington, whose family were buried in Saint Michael’s Church on Greenhill, Lichfield.

Lady Mary’s monument reads:

Sacred to the Memory
The Right Honourable
Lady Mary Wortley Montague,
Who happily introduc’d from Turkey,
into this Country,
The Salutary Art
Of inoculating Small-Pox.
Convinc’d of its Efficacy
She first tried it with Success,
On her own Children,
And then recommended this practice of it
To her fellow-Citizens.
Thus by her Example and Advice,
We have soften’d the Virulence,
And escap’d the danger of this malignant Disease.
To perpetuate the memory of such Benevolence,
And to express her Gratitude
For the benefit She herself has receiv’d
From this alleviating Art,
This monument is erected
Henrietta Inge
Relict of Theodore Inge Esqr.
And Daughter of Sir John Wrottesley Baronet
In the year of Our Lord MDCCLXXXIX

Signs of hope … Lichfield Cathedral in late autumn sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


David said...

Hi Patrick, I remember Janet Parker sadly passing away as when I started at Good Hope Hospital Sutton Coldfield the occupational nurse wouldn’t give me the Smallpox jab saying it was eradicated throughout the world & would save the NHS money. I reminded her of this when Janet died but never got the jab. Excellent piece of writing as usual. Love “Clotworthy” as a name.

Unknown said...

Hi Patrick,

April 2021 marks the 300th anniversary of the introduction of smallpox inoculation to England from Turkey by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The first step into preventative medicine in Western Europe, along a timeline that leads directly to the mass vaccination programme against Covid 19 in the UK today. Including at Lichfield Cathedral!

Lady Mary's bravery in having her own daughter inoculated under the scrutiny of the Royal College of Physicians indeed caused a stir.Some felt that inoculation 'meddled with God's providence', other's questioned whether inoculation did indeed protect against natural smallpox. Some rejected the procedures Oriental folklore roots. Further experiments included the inoculation of 6 condemned prisoners from Newgate and foundling children from Westminster.

These experiments were petitioned for by Lady Mary and king George 1 daughter-in-law, Princess Caroline. However,they had to play down their involvement as they understood that a patriarchal society that did not recognize females capacity to 'reason' would be against adopting a scientific procedure advanced by women.

The success of these early inoculation experiments led Princess Caroline to have her own children inoculated. royal endorsement was the procedure spread like wildfire amongst the nobility of England.

Lady Mary was at first much criticized for subjecting her children to a deadly infection, accused of a dereliction of her role as a mother. When praise came it was in terms of her contribution in 'preserving beauty'rather than saving lives. Her intellect was described as 'masucline' rather than it be credited to belonging to her own gender.

I work as a Volunteer guide at Wentworth Castle Gardens in South Yorkshire where we have the only other monument to Lady Mary's pioneering achievement. Too few women are remembered to history for their contribution to science and medicine. We hope to restore Mary's reputation as a scientific pioneer and advocate of female equality here at the gardens in this the 3rd Centenary of her revolutionary achievement.

I would be very happy to share information with you Patrick, should you wish to mark this occasion at Lichfield too.

Jenny Rudd.