The history of vaccines has in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (London, 1689-1762), an English writer and aristocrat, a forerunner who during her stay in Constantinople, as the wife of the English ambassador, discovered in the Turkish harems the way they had to be immunized against the then deadly smallpox.
The Italian journalist and translator María Teresas Giaveri , professor of French literature, discovers in Lady Montagú y el dragoman (Criticism) the story of this woman who in the 18th century fought to spread a revolutionary discovery.
Giaveri tells it as a travel book that takes us from London to Constantinople passing through the European continent by the hand of this woman with a face disfigured by smallpox who managed to survive and who married for love, which was not then habitual.
Montagu discovered that in Constantinople they used to inoculate the bodies of healthy people with purulent matter extracted from the sick to “vaccinate” them.
Known literarily from the letters she sent from Constantinople, Montagu discovered that there they used to inoculate the bodies of healthy people with purulent matter extracted from the sick to “vaccinate” them, a practice that spread to the rest of Ottoman society and that was also done in the women’s baths and harems as she could see for herself.
But it was the dragoman (interpreter) of the English embassy who put him on the track, in this case a nobleman from Constantinople of Genoese origin, Emanuel Timoni, who had studied medicine at the University of Padua.
Convinced of the prophylactic efficacy of the treatment, she vaccinated her two children and once she returned to London she tried to convince aristocrats and doctors to apply the procedure when another smallpox epidemic broke out.
Thanks to the help of the king’s personal physician, Sir Hans Sloane, it was tested on six death row inmates in 1721, followed by the inoculation of smallpox in the children of an orphanage. When success was seen, aristocratic families and royalty followed.
At the same time we read the vicissitudes of Lady Montagú, who returned to the continent in 1739, after the disappointments suffered with her two children, and who left her husband with the excuse that she needed a better climate for her health to be with her lover Francesco. Algarotti.
The Italian Algarotti, a cultured, brilliant man and archetypal of the Enlightenment, 23 years her junior, was also the lover of the King of Prussia Frederick II the Great, and his history with Lady Montagú soon ended.
She ended up living in Venice. When her husband died of cancer, she returned after a dangerous trip to London, where she arrived in January 1762, to die a few months later.
As Giaveri recalls, Lady Montagú’s company was the starting signal in the history of vaccination. What was then considered an “experiment by ignorant women” is now called a vaccine.