Letter from Lady Mary Wortley Montague to Mrs. S.C. on Smallpox Inoculations



Letter from Lady Mary Wortley Montague to Mrs. S.C. on Smallpox Inoculations


The Scientific Revolution, often described as lasting from the mid 16th century to the end of the 17th century, brought tremendous changes to Europe and redefined the way that they interacted with and understood the natural world. But, though this period is often discussed as the result of the creative thinking of a few notable standouts (Galileo and Newton likely foremost among them,) it was also deeply rooted in the culture and circumstances of Europe during this period. Firstly, it is hardly coincidental that this broad expansion in the understanding of the natural world occurred shortly after the European conception of the worlds size and diversity doubled with the encounter of the Americas. This sparked a deep interest, not only in the economic potentials of the New World, but in the scientific exploration of it as well (though often these two goals were inextricably linked). Spanish discovery of gold, silver, and other precious metals in Central America, for instance led to English investment in new technologies that could be used for the enrichment of the crown and continued defense against the Spanish. They even explored the possibility of alchemy to keep up with the new found wealth of the Spaniards (Harkness, 142). In addition to this broadening of the known world, the Scientific revolution was spurred, and in turn, encouraged a more cohesive scientific and cultural community across Europe. This led to an expansion in communication between intellectuals in different parts of Europe and the increased travel of the nobility and aristocracy for exploration and intellectual betterment (Wiesner-Hanks, 368-369). All of these factors enabled the spread of ideas across much larger areas that served to increase general knowledge throughout the continent and to allow individuals to more efficiently apply their time by reducing the redundancy of study in different corners of the continent. This transmission of knowledge can be seen in the a letter sent home to a friend in England by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, an English aristocrat and the wife of the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. She writes home of an early method she has learned of for vaccinating children against smallpox which she intends to try to prevent serious illness in her own children.
“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... the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein 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 lie 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 eins...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 [sores] in their faces, which never mark, and in eight days time they are as well as before their illness” (Wortley Montague, 109-110).
This case is fascinating as it transmits knowledge of a process that Montague has personally witnessed, and therefore, is sharing evidence of its success, rather than mere hearsay. This letter illustrates the effects of the shrinking world during this period. Ideas and evidence originating with people from around the world were beginning to spread much more quickly and they had the ability to change lives throughout a wider area, thus greatly increasing the impact of the innovations of the Scientific Revolution. This ability to communicate through maritime channels is one of the great legacies of the early modern period in general, and the Scientific Revolution in particular. The advancement of technology and knowledge increases dramatically when inventors, and thinkers can build upon one another's work, no longer duplicating efforts. While this technique shared by Wortley Montague was not widely employed back home, it is representative of a shift toward world wide communications that would advance scientific and medical knowledge in the centuries to come (Wiesner-Hanks, 300).


Lady Mary Wortley Montague


Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura


Originally Printed 1800, not dated


Printed by Pierre Diderot


Free Re-use

Original Format

Printed Book


Lady Mary Wortley Montague, “Letter from Lady Mary Wortley Montague to Mrs. S.C. on Smallpox Inoculations,” HIST 139 - Early Modern Europe, accessed March 25, 2023, https://earlymoderneurope.hist.sites.carleton.edu/items/show/96.

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