From a letter. Montagu lived in Turkey during her husband’s two-year ambassadorial stint. In the 1720s she introduced and popularized an early form of smallpox inoculation known as variolation, wherein someone is exposed to the substance from the pustules of an infected person, inducing a weaker strain of the disease (variola minor). Her fifty-two Turkish letters were published to wide acclaim in 1763, one year after her death.
Dear Mrs. S.C.,
Apropos of distempers, I am going to tell you a thing that will make you wish yourself here. The smallpox, so fatal and so general among us, is here entirely harmless, by the invention of ingrafting, which is the term they give it. 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 smallpox—they make parties for this purpose—and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of smallpox, 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 veins. The Grecians have commonly the superstition of opening one in the middle of the forehead, one in each arm, and one on the breast, to mark the sign of the cross; but this has a very ill effect—all these wounds leaving little scars—and is not done by those that are not superstitious, who choose to have them in the legs, or that part of the arm that is concealed. 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. Where they are wounded, there remain running sores during the distemper, which I don’t doubt is a great relief to it. Every year thousands undergo this operation, and the French ambassador says pleasantly that they take the smallpox here by way of diversion, as they take the waters in other countries. There is no example of anyone who has died in it; and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son.
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 the courage to war with them. Upon this occasion admire the heroism in the heart of your friend.