An Old Effort To Stop The Smallpox Virus Has Lessons For COVID-19 Today : Shots - Health News In 1721, London was in the grips of a deadly smallpox epidemic. One woman learned how to stop it, but her solution sowed political division.

A 300-Year-Old Tale Of One Woman's Quest To Stop A Deadly Virus

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Now, we're going to take a look back in time to a disease outbreak that took place hundreds of years ago. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has the story of an English noblewoman who fought to end it. In doing so, she ran into some familiar problems - fear, politics and cultural division.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: For centuries, smallpox killed millions and millions of people. But in the 1700s, in a place called the Ottoman Empire, centered around modern-day Turkey, there were women who knew how to stop it.

AKIF YERLIOGLU: Women were sharing this knowledge, this know-how among themselves.

BRUMFIEL: Akif Yerlioglu is a historian of Ottoman medicine at the University of Oslo in Norway. These women were part of a vast and informal network of female medical professionals.

YERLIOGLU: I remember seeing a document about one woman eye doctor.

BRUMFIEL: Others worked as faith healers, midwives and surgeons. And the secret they knew was this - take a bit of pus from a smallpox victim, and use a needle to scratch a tiny amount into the blood of a healthy person. That person would get a mild form of smallpox and become immune to the more serious version.

MICHAEL KINCH: We don't know exactly why or how it works, we just know that it does work.

BRUMFIEL: Michael Kinch is at Washington State University in St. Louis and has written a book on vaccination. Kinch and others suspect that this form of inoculation may have worked because it introduced the smallpox virus through the skin instead of the lungs.

KINCH: So by putting it in the place that is less deadly - i.e., the skin - then you would have a greater likelihood of surviving.

BRUMFIEL: It wasn't risk free, but it was far less dangerous than catching smallpox. Inoculation originated in China centuries earlier and was also practiced in places like India and Africa, but not so much in Europe. Isobel Grundy, an emeritus professor at the University of Alberta in Canada, says some European doctors were aware of what the Ottomans were doing, but they refused to believe it could work.

ISOBEL GRUNDY: It comes from Islamic country, which we regard as backward. How could they have the answer to smallpox? And also something done by women, which is bad.

BRUMFIEL: And this is where things stood when an Englishwoman named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu arrived in the Ottoman Empire in 1717. Lady Mary was a wealthy noblewoman married to the English ambassador to the Empire, and she fell in love with the Ottoman capital city of Constantinople.

GRUNDY: The art was completely different. The customs of life were completely different - the music, everything, really. So it was all very exciting to her. And among the new discoveries she took in was this practice of inoculating against smallpox.

BRUMFIEL: Lady Mary described what she saw in a letter home to a friend.

GRUNDY: (Reading) The smallpox so fatal and so general amongst us is here entirely harmless.

BRUMFIEL: She told how old women would keep pus from a smallpox victim in a nutshell, then use a needle to create a tiny scratch in their patients' vein. She was instantly convinced of its potential.

GRUNDY: (Reading) I am very well satisfied of the safety of the experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son.

BRUMFIEL: Lady Mary was ready to inoculate her son because smallpox had killed her brother a few years earlier and shortly before traveling east, she herself had contracted it.

GRUNDY: She did survive, but she was very, very badly marked. Her eye lashes never grew back after the smallpox, and apparently her skin was very much scarred.

BRUMFIEL: Her son's procedure was successful. The family traveled back to England. And then in 1721, there was a major smallpox outbreak in London.

GRUNDY: There were people dying all over the place. Just about every week, somebody she knew was dying of it. And social life came to a standstill and all the things we've suddenly become familiar with again.

BRUMFIEL: Lady Mary quickly arranged to have her daughter, also named Mary, inoculated. And that decision got noticed. It was written about in the papers.

GRUNDY: By the time spots came up on little Mary, there was a kind of queue at the door to come in and see her, both of social acquaintances of Lady Mary and of high-place doctors.

BRUMFIEL: And Lady Mary was OK with that. She wanted to use her influence to spread the practice of inoculation, which she believed could save lives. To help her case, she sought to convince the future queen of England to inoculate her children. The royal family agreed, though only after conducting a series of tests.

GRUNDY: Taking criminals condemned to death and asking them to volunteer to be inoculated instead, experimentally.

KINCH: By today's standards, wildly unethical.

BRUMFIEL: That's Michael Kinch again. There were also tests on orphans. And sadly, these kinds of experiments were commonplace for medical professionals of the time.

KINCH: I think there was a different view of people's lives and the value of life and all lives being equal.

BRUMFIEL: In the end, the future queen did inoculate her daughters. It was a huge PR win for Lady Mary, but it also came with consequences.

GRUNDY: That made it a political matter. So people who were against the royal family - oh, well, this is something that the Princess of Wales is doing. Wouldn't trust that.

BRUMFIEL: There were others who mistrusted its Islamic origins. For Grundy, the things Lady Mary encountered feel very familiar in those political fights over whether to wear masks or conspiracy theories claiming the coronavirus came from a Chinese lab.

GRUNDY: People's behavior is kind of depressingly similar, really.

BRUMFIEL: But Kinch says Lady Mary's actions also offer lessons.

KINCH: One takeaway for everyone - both scientists and nonscientists - is that we're not nearly as smart as we think we are, and we have much that we can learn from others.

BRUMFIEL: Lady Mary wanted to stop smallpox. To do it, she was open to all ideas.

KINCH: Her brilliance and her open-mindedness allowed her to embrace something that ultimately saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.

BRUMFIEL: Because the technique she'd learned from the Ottoman women did take hold in England, many thousands were inoculated, including a young boy named Edward Jenner. He went on to develop the first vaccine, also against smallpox. And of course, vaccination is still being used today to fight a new deadly virus.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.


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