Smallpox: 'The Speckled Monster'

New Book Takes Historical Look at Innoculation Pioneers

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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 1689-1762. She was known as an English poet and wit, but also as a pioneer in the fight against smallpox. This portrait was made after her own bout with smallpox, but the artist chose to represent her without the unseemly scars. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

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Jennifer Lee Carrell's book, The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox. Dutton hide caption

Read an excerpt.
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Available Online

An 1802 painting depicting, "The Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!" by James Gillray. Corbis hide caption

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Doctors, emergency first responders and scientists gather this week in Washington, D.C., to discuss strategies for combating a possible outbreak of smallpox. By the time the disease was eradicated in 1980, it had claimed hundreds of millions of victims. Those it didn't kill were left permanently scarred.

The first successful attempts at fighting the disease came from an unlikely pair during a particularly bad outbreak of smallpox in 1721: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in London, and Zabdiel Boylston in Boston. Both had survived smallpox, and each learned of folk methods of treating the disease. Against all popular medical advice at the time, both decided to experiment with what is now called inoculation. Jennifer Lee Carrell has written a book about these pioneers, called The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox. In an interview with NPR's Michele Norris, host of All Things Considered, Carrell describes the dangerous, and sometimes haphazard situations the two encountered. Read an excerpt from the book:

In Georgian London, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu sweeps out of a palatial bedroom in a swirl of satin and silk, her three-year-old daughter in tow. The servants are impassive as she floats by, but in her wake their faces pinch in disgust and their eyes meet in knowing glances. "Unnatural," hisses the nurse to a maid. Ignoring them, she descends the grand staircase like the duke's daughter she is, but at the tall doors to the street, she pauses. She has grown accustomed to the delicate razors wielded in the plumed, powdered, and diamond-frosted high society of aristocrats and artists: countesses and poets once proud to claim her acquaintance now make ostentatiously absurd claims to parade out of any room she enters. But even that is less harrowing than what happens in public. She sets her shoulders and nods to the footmen, who swing open the doors. As she steps into the street, heads turn, and people begin pointing and jeering.

Just as the door closes on the safe haven of her coach, a servant in silver livery hands her a tray of carefully stacked notes: even as some mothers teach their children to taunt her, others send footmen day and night to beg for her presence. When they find her away from home, they fan out through the winding lanes of London to track down her carriage, wherever she may be.

In colonial Boston, Zabdiel Boylston rides down a muddy street; his black slave Jack follows on a mule, packing a satchel full of the tools of Boylston's trade: he's a general surgeon and an apothecary, or pharmacist. He's never been to college, but the townspeople call him "doctor" anyway, in honor of his skill. After years of practice, and before that, years of apprenticeship with his father, he's the most trusted medical man in town. A recent arrival from Scotland, William Douglass, is beginning to protest, however: Dr. Douglass may be eleven years younger than Boylston, but after studying at no fewer than four European universities, he has earned a proper medical degree. His peacock pride is infuriated by the mere presence of this untrained competitor for his fees, and even more so by the trust the provincial fools of Boston put in him.

So far, Boylston has paid no mind to Douglass's sneers: he cares little for tradition or titles. What he cares about are honest hard work and results.

That was before the recent outbreak of smallpox, however. Now, like Lady Mary, Boylston is hooted at and splattered intentionally with filth whenever he steps into the street. For fear of lynch mobs, his wife and friends beg him not to go out after dusk, but the stealthy knocks keep coming, followed by urgently whispered requests: Will you come now, before it's too late? (Scroll down for a link to read more of the excerpt.)



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