How an Early Female Travel Writer Became an Immunization Pioneer

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a British aristocrat, feminist, and writer who was famed for her letters. If that were all she did, she would be a slightly obscure example of a travel writer and early feminist. But she was also an important public health advocate who is largely responsible for the adoption of inoculation against smallpox—one of the earliest forms of immunization—in England.

Smallpox was a scourge right up until the mid-20th century. Caused by two strains of Variola virus, the disease had a mortality rate of up to 35 percent. If you lived, you were left with unsightly scars, and possible complications such as severe arthritis and blindness.

Lady Montagu knew smallpox well: Her brother died of it at the age of 20, and in late 1715, she contracted the disease herself. She survived, but her looks did not; she lost her eyelashes and was left with deeply pitted skin on her face.

When Lady Montagu’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed ambassador to Turkey the year after her illness, she accompanied him and took up residence in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The lively letters she wrote home described the world of the Middle East to her English friends and served for many as an introduction to Muslim society.

One of the many things Lady Montagu wrote home about was the practice of variolation, a type of inoculation practiced in Asia and Africa likely starting around the 15th or 16th century. In variolation, a small bit of a pustule from someone with a mild case of smallpox is placed into one or more cuts on someone who has not had the disease. A week or so later, the person comes down with a mild case of smallpox and is immune to the disease ever after.

Lady Montagu described the process in a 1717 letter:

"There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nuts-hell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins. . . . The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days' time they are as well as before their illness."

So impressed was Lady Montagu by the effectiveness of variolation that she had a Scottish doctor who worked at the embassy, Charles Maitland, variolate her 5-year-old son in 1718 with the help of a local woman. She returned to England later that same year. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic hit London, and Montagu had Maitland (who by then had also returned to England) variolate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of several prominent doctors. Maitland later ran an early version of a clinical trial of the procedure on six condemned inmates in Newgate Prison, who were promised their freedom if they took part in the experiment. All six lived, and those later exposed to smallpox were immune. Maitland then repeated the experiment on a group of orphaned children with the same results.

A painting of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Art UK // CC BY-NC-ND

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.

But from the start, Lady Montagu knew that getting variolation accepted would be an uphill battle. In the same letter as her first description of the practice, she wrote:

"I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England; and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps, if I live to return, I may, however, have courage to war with them."

As promised, Lady Montagu promoted variolation enthusiastically, encouraging the parents in her circle, visiting convalescing patients, and publishing an account of the practice in a London newspaper. Through her influence, many people, including members of the royal family, were inoculated against smallpox, starting with two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722. Without her advocacy, scholars say, variolation might never have caught on and smallpox would have been an even greater menace than it was. The famed poet Alexander Pope said that for her, immortality would be "a due reward" for "an action which all posterity may feel the advantage of," namely the "world’s being freed from the future terrors of the small-pox."

Variolation was performed in England for another 70 years, until Edward Jenner introduced vaccination using cowpox in 1796. Vaccination was instrumental in finally stopping smallpox: In 1980, it became the first (and so far, only) human disease to be completely eradicated worldwide.

Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

Newly Uncovered Galileo Letter Details How He Tried to Avoid the Inquisition

Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Galileo Galilei was one of the Roman Catholic Inquisition’s most famous targets. As a result of his outspoken support for the theory that all the planets, Earth included, revolve around the Sun, the Catholic Church charged him with heresy and he spent the last years of his life under house arrest. Galileo was well aware that he was on the Church’s hit list, and a newly discovered letter shows that at one point, he tried to tone down his ideas to avoid persecution, according to Nature and Ars Technica.

The letter in question, written in 1613, solves a long-held mystery for Galileo scholars. It was found in the library of the Royal Society, where it has been for at least 250 years.

Galileo’s beef with the Catholic Church came about because of his support for heliocentrism—the idea that the solar system centers around the Sun—as advocated in Nicolaus Copernicus’s book De Revolutionibus. Galileo’s scientific writings clearly endorsed Copernicus’s theory of the world, including in personal correspondence that was widely disseminated, and in some cases, he directly questioned the scientific merit of Biblical passages.

In 1613, Galileo wrote to a friend and former student named Benedetto Castelli who was then teaching mathematics at the University of Pisa. The letter was a long treatise on Galileo’s thoughts on Copernicus’s ideas and religion, arguing that science and astronomy should not be overpowered by religious doctrin . (He would later expand this into his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.) As with many of Galileo’s writings at the time, the letter was copied and disseminated widely, and eventually, a friar named Niccolò Lorini forwarded it to the Inquisition in Rome in 1615.

This is where things get tricky. Galileo claimed that the version of the letter Lorini sent was doctored to be more inflammatory. He sent a less controversial version of the letter to a friend, saying that it was the original document and should be forwarded to the Vatican, essentially to clear his name. But scholars have never been able to be totally sure if he was telling the truth about the letter being doctored.

This newly discovered letter suggests that he was lying, and that he himself was looking to tone down his rhetoric to appease the Catholic Church and keep authorities from quashing the spread of heliocentric ideas. The original copy found in the Royal Society archives shows changes to the wording in what appears to be Galileo’s handwriting. The seven-page letter, signed “G.G.,” includes changes like swapping the word “false” for the more slippery “look different from the truth,” changing “concealing” to “veiling,” and other edits that seek to tone down the rhetoric that inflamed Church leaders. The wording and handwriting corresponds to similar writing by Galileo at the time. Based on this finding, it seems that Galileo did seek to make his ideas more palatable to the Catholic Church in the hopes of escaping persecution by the Inquisition.

Discovered on a research trip by science historian Salvatore Ricciardo of Italy's University of Bergamo, the letter may have been overlooked in the Royal Society archives because it was cataloged as being dated October 21, 1613 rather than the date it actually bears, December 21, 1613. However, it’s unclear how it came to the Royal Society in the first place. The document is the subject of a forthcoming article by Ricciardo and his colleagues in the Royal Society journal Notes and Records, according to Nature.

The minor changes Galileo made did not successfully hold off the Church’s crackdown on heliocentrism. In 1616, the Inquisition ordered Galileo to stop teaching or defending the theory, and several of his books were subsequently banned. He would stand trial again almost two decades later, in 1633, on suspicion of holding heretical thoughts. He was found guilty and sentenced to house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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