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How an Early Travel Writer Became an Immunization Pioneer

In the early 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu went to Turkey when her husband was made England's ambassador to that country. She wrote extensive letters about the exotic city of Constantinople and the lives of the Turks. She was particularly fascinated by the way they controlled smallpox: by a process called variolation. Fifty years before Washington inoculated his troops with the method, Lady Montagu convinced doctors back in England to experiment with the process, on prisoners and orphans. To her credit, she also had her own children inoculated against smallpox.  

But the idea of purposely giving someone a disease was not an easy sell, especially since about 2 or 3 percent of people who were variolated still died of smallpox (either because the procedure didn’t work, or because they caught a different strain than the one they had been variolated with). In addition, variolated people could also spread the disease while they were infectious. Lady Montagu also faced criticism because the procedure was seen as “Oriental,” and because of her gender.

Read about Lady Montagu and her campaign to protect England against smallpox at Mental Floss.

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