The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu. Scientist and Feminist. Jo Willett

Writing :

This biography of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was published this year. Nothing specific was said about the pandemic, but the obvious message is that it is time to more broadly understand her role in the adoption of inoculation as a medical technology.  

Lady Mary, eldest daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston, was the person who introduced inoculation for smallpox from Turkey to the Western world.  As wife to the English Ambassador to the Sublime Porte she, unlike previous travelers, all male, had an unique opportunity to see it done in the harems of Turkish women. Herself a smallpox survivor, and living in a period characterized by successive increasingly virulent smallpox epidemics, she saw the potential of inoculation.

What she accomplished reverberates to this day and is more relevant than ever.  Yet all we hear, especially in the US, is Edward Jenner, Edward Jenner, Edward Jenner.  Even during my university immunology courses Lady Mary was never mentioned.  What Edward Jenner did was substitute cowpox for smallpox, since immunity to one poxvirus confers immunity to others.  A great breakthrough but nowhere near as important as hers.  The scientific contributions of women have been undervalued far too long.

This is a well written, well researched, accessible biography for the general reader rather than a scholarly audience, but that is the need.  I have read and own Lady Mary’s Turkish Embassy Letters and several older biographies.  They all tend to emphasize her conflict with Alexander Pope, her literary life, and self-imposed exile in Italy in later life.  This one, on the other hand, does a good job of describing her life in terms that contemporaries who might not be familiar with the details and language of aristocratic life of the 18th century can relate to.  For example, the author talks about clinical trials when discussing Lady Mary’s inoculation of her daughter Mary in London, and data gathering during the early stages of testing this new treatment.  

The author casts an interesting light on LMWM’s notorious bust-up with Pope. You see how easy it was, post #MeToo, for a man to destroy a woman’s reputation.  The result of this is that today, Lady Mary is just a footnote in Pope Studies.  Yet her accomplishment was far, far more transformational than anything Pope ever wrote, said, or did.  

Also interesting was the discussion of several years she spent in Italy with Count Ugolino Palazzi-she was clearly the victim of a conman.  I have read her letters on this subject, but it wasn’t really obvious until put into a modern context.  Some things never change….

Lady Mary was a famous feminist and wrote extensively on the disadvantages suffered by the women of her day.  In Turkey, she had an extraordinary opportunity to compare cultures and she was scathing about Europe in comparison.  European women had limited rights to their own money for example, unlike Turkey.  Despite her social position, advantages, and toughness of character, she was taken advantage of a number of times by men:  the mess over her Sister Mar’s mental health, the conflict with Pope, Count Palazzi.  

She knew what she was talking about when she railed against the inequities of marriage, and the limitations of women’s lives.  I could wish this bio had more detail on life in Turkey, but overall I can recommend it highly.  It should be essential pandemic reading.

Sandya Narayanswami 2021