9. Mary Wortley Montagu Advocated for Smallpox Inoculation
Born into the British aristocracy in 1689, Lady Mary was raised by her grandmother and father, who educated her. She did not particularly like her governess, who was privately hired to teach her and her siblings, so she often stole away to the family’s private library, where she taught herself many of the subjects in which she was interested. Lady Mary became a prolific writer early on, as well as an ardent feminist who firmly believed that women should be given the same opportunities and have the same rights as men.
Lady Mary married Edward Montagu and became known among the upper class of London for her beauty and quick wit. While there, her brother died of smallpox, and she contracted the disease but survived. Her husband was appointed to the embassy in Turkey, where they lived together for a couple of years. Nearly a century before the smallpox vaccine was first invented in Europe Lady Mary observed how Turkish women inoculated themselves and their children against the dreaded disease: they would take the pus from someone who had a mild case, scratch the skin of a healthy person, and apply the discharge, which contained the virus. This process is known as variolation.
During the 1720s, a smallpox outbreak tore through London. Lady Mary had her entire family variolated, and all of them survived. She advocated for the process to be administered on a larger scale, but her efforts were met with criticism. However, five prisoners on death row chose to be variolated rather than executed, and all five of them survived. At the end of the century, a new procedure was invented for vaccinated against smallpox, and it became very popular. However, Lady Mary’s campaign for variolation saved many lives during the London outbreak.