Who was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu?
In the eighteenth century, Lady Mary was known for her sharp satiric writing about prominent personalities. Not all this work survives however, because of her daughter.
Her daughter was scandalised by her mother – who she considered to be extremely eccentric – so when Lady Mary died, her papers were destroyed.
Lady Mary was renown for her wit and her beauty but there was another side to her complex personality.
It was Mary who discovered, and took to England, the cure for the disease that was rife and dreaded by all in those days – smallpox. This epidemic killed almost one quarter of the eighteenth century English population, including Mary’s own younger brother.
In addition to the fatalities, many people were disfigured by the disease -Mary was one herself.
In those days, no-one knew where the disease came from or how it was spread and they had no idea whatsoever about how to cure or prevent it.
Mary was the daughter of an earl who was also an esteemed politician so she was brought up to be a gentlewoman. But she largely educated herself from the books in her father’s library. Women in those days did normally not receive any formal education, they were trained only to become hostesses and valuable wives.
For girls like Mary,their future lay only in making successful marriages. Like all parents of the day, Mary’s father started hunting around for a suitable match.
The result of this trawling was a man by the supremely wonderful name of Clotworthy Skefflington. It may have been the thought of having to call her husband ‘Clotworthy’ or their may have been other reasons but Mary rebelled. In 1712 she eloped with another man, Edward Wortley Montagu. He was rich and he was intelligent.
Four years later, he was sent to the Ottoman Empire as an ambassador. Mary was determined to accompany him, along with their young son. She adored it. We was delighted to find out about the country,its people and its customs. She saw things that we would think of as being commonplace today but were unknown in England. For example, she soon noticed that out-of-season fruit and vegetables were available in local markets. This is because of the use of hothouses – an innovation she was determined to introduce to England.
The locals were equally intrigued. Famously, she attended a Turkish bath where the local women were baffled by her corset. THey thought it was some sort of chastity belt that could only be opened by her husband. This encouraged Lady Mary to start to dress in local clothing. Wearing flowing robes, she travelled widely throughout the country.
As she travelled,she discovered that locals were using a rudimentary form of vaccination against smallpox. She reported that there was a group of women whose job it was to introduce a low dose of mild smallpox to people via a scratch with a needle. She had her son treated in this way and sent letters back to England describing the technique.
When she returned to England she publicised it and even persuaded the then Princess of Wales to be inoculated. So were two of her children. The technique was tested on prisoners and orphaned children – successfully. The clergy were infuriated. They saw the technique as being’ against God’s will’. The practise died out, although about eight hundred people were vaccinated thanks to Lady Mary.
Seventy years later, Edward Jenner refined the technique and it became the standard, successful treatment for smallpox.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR