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)

New project to bring new
life to the Jewish Museum
and synagogues in Venice

Thew Jewish Museum is in the heart of the Ghetto in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Normally, during the first few weeks in November, I take a few days off for a city break, to mark some special family days and in advance of the busy seasons of Advent and Christmas.

Two of us had planned to spend a few days around this time in Paris. But when the pandemic travel restrictions were introduced, we lowered our sights and planned a city break in Galway. That too was cancelled in recent days, and we had panned to stay in Co Limerick, with dinner and an overnight stay at the Mustard Seed in Ballingarry.

But that too fell by the wayside, and over weekend dinners in the rectory we reminisced about previous city break in November, including Bratislava (2019), Venice (2018), Bologna and Ravenna (2017), and Krakow and Auschwitz (2016).

We have promised to return to Venice as soon as possible. Meanwhile, it was heartening in the last few days to learn that he Jewish Museum of Venice, which I visited this week two years ago, is undergoing a full-scale expansion and redevelopment following the Jewish High Holidays at the end of September. The project is expected to take about three years to complete and to cost about €9 million.

The project was announced earlier this summer by the Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, the President of the Jewish Community of Venice, Paolo Gnignati, the Director of the Jewish Museum of Venice, Marcella Ansaldi and the Venice-based art historian and philanthropist David Landau, who is managing the project.

The museum was founded by the Jewish Community of Venice in 1953. The museum is on the main square of the ghetto in Venice, and includes an exhibition of religious objects and other items, and it offers tours of three of the five 16th century synagogues in the Ghetto.

One area of is dedicated to the cycle of Jewish holidays and the liturgy. It displays books and manuscripts, precious objects and textiles from the 16th to the 19th century and objects of religious life. A second area tells the story of the Ghetto and the persecution of the Jews, from its origins to the concentration camps in World War II.

The Jewish population of Venice in 1938 had numbered 2,000; by the end of World War II and the Holocaust, this number was reduced to 1,500 or, according to some sources, 1,050. Only eight Jewish people from Venice survived the death camps.

Words from the Book of Job in the Jewish Museum … a chilling reminder of the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The architect Alessandro Pedron is responsible for the planned renovation. According to his plans, the Museum complex will be enlarged from its present 1,200 square metres to 2,000 square metres.

The renovation work includes reinforcing the Jewish Museum building. The cafeteria, bookshop and toilets area will be expanded, there will be new exhibition and educational spaces, and the Jewish community library and archive are to be redesigned in an expanded space. The museum will also be adapted to the needs of disabled visitors, with the installation of two internal lifts.

The three synagogues will be renovated inside at the same time. The German Grand Synagogue (Scuola Grande Tedesca), founded in 1528, and the Swiss Synagogue (Scuola Canton), dating from 1531, are located in the same building as the Museum’s exhibition rooms; the simple, rooftop Scuola Italiana or Italian Synagogue, dating from 1575, is in an adjacent building.

The project plans to connect the main building, where the museum and the two synagogues are located, with the building that hosts the Italian Synagogue, which will also be opened to visitors.

The expansion of the museum will incorporate a Ghetto apartment beneath the German Grand Synagogue, and the installation of an exhibition that recreates the living conditions of a Jewish family in the Ghetto in 16th century Venice.

The Scuola Spagnola was founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Recent reports say 60 per cent of the €9 million needed for the project has already been pledged, with contributions from about 20 US and European private investors. Local reports said the President of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, had donated €2 million to the project.

Some reports say the museum will remain open to the public during the three-year project. But, since some parts of the museum will be temporarily closed, the Jewish community in Venice plans to open other spaces inside the ghetto that are normally closed to the public.

The museum is located in the Campo di Ghetto Novo. In that square and in the Campo di Ghetto Vecchio there are several midrashim inside buildings owned by the Jewish Community, two other 16th century synagogues – the Scola Levantina or Levantine Sephardic Synagogue, founded in 1541, and the Scuola Spagnola (Spanish Synagogue), founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews – kosher restaurants, a guesthouse, an old people’s home, a small biblical garden, a bakery and grocery shop, as well as many buildings with mezuzot on the doorposts that indicate Jewish residents.

In addition, Venice also has a large population of Lubavitcher followers of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of Brooklyn, who died in 1994. They run a kosher food shop, a restaurant and a yeshiva, and have their own Chabad synagogue.

The new plan for the museum was made public this year, six years after an earlier, $12 million renovation plan for the museum and three synagogues was announced in November 2014. At the time, it was hoped that project would be completed by 2016, in time for the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Venice Ghetto in 1516.

However, this was never carried out, although some restoration work was carried out in the synagogues, funded through the World Monuments Fund.

A conversation with David Landau, who is managing the project and Marcella Ansaldi, Director of the Jewish Museum of Venice, touring the museum and the three synagogues to be restored