The story of Mary Wortley Montagu, the precursor to smallpox immunization

If you search for the origin of the vaccines, the first name that will probably appear is the English doctor Edward Jenner. In 1796, he realized that the farmers responsible for milk from cows were not infected with human smallpox – probably because they had created resistance by contact with cowpox, which ended up being transmitted by the pus present in the cows’ teats and causing the disease. lightly.

Jenner took the credits – no wonder, the word “vaccine” comes from vaccinate (from Latin vaccinus, “That comes from the cow”). But the history of immunization predates the doctor’s discovery. And one of the protagonists of this story is the English aristocrat Mary Wortley Montagu, whose practices and experiments in the 18th century made her known as an “ignorant woman”.

In 1717, Montagu was living in Turkey with her husband, who worked in the country as a British ambassador. There, she realized that many women did not have smallpox marks, which is suspicious when it comes to a highly contagious disease that has scars as one of its sequels. Mary knew this well, since she had contracted smallpox in the past and, despite having survived, her face was disfigured.

There was an explanation: inoculation, that is, the act of purposely putting the virus on someone, is a practice that emerged in the 10th century in eastern Asia and which, in the 18th century, was popular in Turkey. Those responsible for the application were, in most cases, illiterate Greek and Armenian women, who removed a small amount of pus from a person with smallpox and then added the material to the bloodstream of other individuals through small cuts on the wrists and ankles.

The inoculated people ended up getting sick, but in a mild way and with no possibility of contracting future infections. Still in Turkey, Montagu accepted the risk and let his eldest son receive treatment.

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Retrato de Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762). Heritage Images / Colaborador/Getty Images

In 1721, the family had already returned to England. Mary had a daughter who, at the time, was three years old – but had not been inoculated. At the time, the country was experiencing an outbreak of smallpox, which served as a trigger for the aristocrat to carry out the rudimentary immunization on her baby.

Mary wanted to take the opportunity to show that the practice worked. Then he invited a group of respected doctors and friends of the aristocracy to observe the child after his recovery. One of the doctors approved the method and tried to apply it to his own son. The news reached royalty, and the Princess of Wales also let royal children be inoculated.

Of course, not everything is flowers: the inoculation by laymen, like Mary, threatened the professional position of doctors and also their profit, in addition to being seen by clerics as a human interference in nature. This caused many to call the girl “ignorant” and reject her ideas.

Other than that, the procedure was dangerous and, often, deadly. In Turkey, where inoculation was established, women knew that the dose to be administered had to be small to cause only mild symptoms, not to mention that the patient needed to be isolated for a while so that the virus was not transmitted. In England, inoculation became the role of doctors, but several uninformed professionals performed the procedure improperly, allowing their patients to bleed and “purify” themselves for weeks before the inoculation.

Apparently, Edward Jenner was inoculated in childhood, but he went through several problems and did not keep fond memories of the method. Then, in 1796, he realized that there was an easier way to perform the procedure by looking at cow milkers. Jenner, as a doctor, was able to publish scientific articles on the discovery, in addition to being taken seriously for his ideas. All of this ensured the Englishman the title of creator of the world’s first immunizer.

This story appears in the book The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu, written by Jo Willett. It was published last Tuesday (30th), but it still doesn’t have a Portuguese version.

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