Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an unsung vaccine superhero

Smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

A painting of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
A painting of Mary Wortley Montagu by Jonathan Richardson the Younger. Source: Wikipedia

Smallpox, an extremely contagious and one of the deadliest diseases in human history, plagued the world for thousands of years, claiming the lives of at least one in three individuals and devastating countries around the world.  Through continued vaccination campaigns, the World Health Organization declared its eradication in 1980.

One of the earliest and most effective practices to combat smallpox was variolation or inoculation, a process in which healthy individuals were exposed to a small amount of smallpox causing a mild case of the disease resulting in active natural immunity.

In the 17th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montage, a British aristocrat living in Turkey, observed the practice of inoculation. She was not the traditional British aristocrat; she was a writer, wife, mother and public health pioneer. She herself survived the disease but was severely scarred. Upon her return to England, she publicly promoted the practice and had her children inoculated. Her continued advocacy paved the way for Dr. Edward Jenner to create the world’s first vaccine in 1796.

Dr. Edward Jenner observed milkmaids that encountered the cowpox disease did not contract smallpox. Jenner tested his hypothesis using cowpox sores from Sarah Nelmes, a local milkmaid, and inoculated eight-year-old James Phipps. After serval exposures to smallpox, the boy never contracted the disease and became the first individual to be vaccinated against smallpox.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr. Edward Jenner are among the numerous vaccine heroes who have made significant contributions to research, development and the advancement of life-saving vaccines. Today, vaccine researchers are continuing to build upon the foundation created by our heroes and developing new vaccines to protect our world from diseases. Explore the stories of our historical vaccine superheroes and their battles against diseases, and check out Vax Pack Hero, an educational game created by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

If you would like to learn more about vaccines, check out Michigan State University Extension’s partnership with the Michigan Vaccine Project to find links to event schedules, podcasts, publications, webinars, and videos related to vaccine education.

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