How an Early Female Travel Writer Became an Immunization Pioneer

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a British aristocrat, feminist, and writer who was famed for her letters. If that were all she did, she would be a slightly obscure example of a travel writer and early feminist. But she was also an important public health advocate who is largely responsible for the adoption of inoculation against smallpox—one of the earliest forms of immunization—in England.

Smallpox was a scourge right up until the mid-20th century. Caused by two strains of Variola virus, the disease had a mortality rate of up to 35 percent. If you lived, you were left with unsightly scars, and possible complications such as severe arthritis and blindness.

Lady Montagu knew smallpox well: Her brother died of it at the age of 20, and in late 1715, she contracted the disease herself. She survived, but her looks did not; she lost her eyelashes and was left with deeply pitted skin on her face.

When Lady Montagu’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed ambassador to Turkey the year after her illness, she accompanied him and took up residence in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The lively letters she wrote home described the world of the Middle East to her English friends and served for many as an introduction to Muslim society.

One of the many things Lady Montagu wrote home about was the practice of variolation, a type of inoculation practiced in Asia and Africa likely starting around the 15th or 16th century. In variolation, a small bit of a pustule from someone with a mild case of smallpox is placed into one or more cuts on someone who has not had the disease. A week or so later, the person comes down with a mild case of smallpox and is immune to the disease ever after.

Lady Montagu described the process in a 1717 letter:

"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 small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nuts-hell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins 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 lye 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 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."

So impressed was Lady Montagu by the effectiveness of variolation that she had a Scottish doctor who worked at the embassy, Charles Maitland, variolate her 5-year-old son in 1718 with the help of a local woman. She returned to England later that same year. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic hit London, and Montagu had Maitland (who by then had also returned to England) variolate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of several prominent doctors. Maitland later ran an early version of a clinical trial of the procedure on six condemned inmates in Newgate Prison, who were promised their freedom if they took part in the experiment. All six lived, and those later exposed to smallpox were immune. Maitland then repeated the experiment on a group of orphaned children with the same results.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendantsJean-Baptiste Vanmour, Art UK // CC BY-NC-ND

But the idea of purposely giving someone a disease was not an easy sell, especially since about 2 or 3 percent of people who were variolated still died of smallpox (either because the procedure didn’t work, or because they caught a different strain than the one they had been variolated with). In addition, variolated people could also spread the disease while they were infectious. Lady Montagu also faced criticism because the procedure was seen as “Oriental,” and because of her gender.

But from the start, Lady Montagu knew that getting variolation accepted would be an uphill battle. In the same letter as her first description of the practice, she wrote:

"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 courage to war with them."

As promised, Lady Montagu promoted variolation enthusiastically, encouraging the parents in her circle, visiting convalescing patients, and publishing an account of the practice in a London newspaper. Through her influence, many people, including members of the royal family, were inoculated against smallpox, starting with two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722. Without her advocacy, scholars say, variolation might never have caught on and smallpox would have been an even greater menace than it was. The famed poet Alexander Pope said that for her, immortality would be "a due reward" for "an action which all posterity may feel the advantage of," namely the "world’s being freed from the future terrors of the small-pox."

Variolation was performed in England for another 70 years, until Edward Jenner introduced vaccination using cowpox in 1796. Vaccination was instrumental in finally stopping smallpox: In 1980, it became the first (and so far, only) human disease to be completely eradicated worldwide.

This article was republished in 2019.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

65 Years Later: 10 Fascinating Facts About the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Associated Press // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Montgomery bus boycott is remembered as one of the earliest mass civil rights protests in American history. It's also the event that helped to make both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. household names when, enraged with the way Black Americans were treated, they helped organize and carry out the boycott, which lasted more than a year.

On December 1, 1955, a segregation-weary Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider, an action that led to her arrest. Her trial began just a few days later, on December 5, 1955, which marked the beginning of the 381-day boycott that led to the desegregation of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. On the 65th anniversary of this historic event, read on to learn more about the people behind the headlines and the unsung heroes of this revolutionary event.

1. Rosa Parks was a lifelong activist.

Rosa Parks is sometimes portrayed as someone who first stood up to power on December 1, 1955. Quite the contrary. “She was not a stranger to activism and civil rights,” Madeline Burkhardt, adult education coordinator at The Rosa Parks Museum and Library, tells Mental Floss. Parks and her husband Raymond were active in the local and state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had served as secretary of both branches, during which time she investigated sexual assault cases.

“She was an assertive Black woman against racism, though in a quiet way,” Dr. Dorothy Autrey, retired chair of the history department at Alabama State University, tells Mental Floss. “It’s a myth that she was physically tired that day [she was arrested on the bus], but she was tired of seeing racism against her people.”

After the Montgomery bus boycott, Parks participated in the 1963 March on Washington and went on to serve on the board of Planned Parenthood. She received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

2. Rosa Parks was arrested twice.

Parks was initially arrested on December 1, 1955, for violating bus segregation laws. However, this wasn’t her most photographed arrest. Her famous mugshot and those pictures of her being fingerprinted (including the one seen above) are from during her second arrest, in February 1956.

Local police issued warrants for the arrest of Parks along with 88 other boycott leaders for organizing to cause the bus company financial harm. The protests had a mighty financial impact; according to Burkhardt, the protest led to losses of approximately $3000 a day, which would be the equivalent of $28,000 a day in 2020. The organizers dressed in their Sunday best, took a photo in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, then turned themselves in.

3. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first—or only—person arrested for disrupting bus segregation.

On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on the bus to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama.The Visibility Project // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Nine months before Parks made headlines, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman. Civil rights organizers didn’t initially hold Colvin up as a movement figurehead because the unmarried teen became pregnant shortly after her arrest. However, leaders later revisited her case, and she became one of five plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the federal court case that ultimately overturned segregation laws on Montgomery buses and ended the boycott on December 20, 1956. Parks wasn’t one of the plaintiffs, but several other local women were, including Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese (though Reese later withdrew).

4. Rosa Parks had a previous run-in with bus driver James F. Blake.

In 1943, Parks got onto a bus James F. Blake was driving and paid her fare at the front. As she began walking down the aisle of the bus to make her way to the Black seating section at the back (instead of exiting the bus and re-entering through another door as was required), the driver forced her off the bus and pulled away before she could re-board. Blake was driving the bus Parks boarded on December 1, when she refused to give up her seat.

5. Although ministers are often celebrated as the boycott’s organizers, women were behind the initial protest.

Indoors at the National Civil Rights Museum stands a recreation of the bright yellow Montgomery city bus where Rosa Parks defied the city's segregated bus transport policy. Location: Location: memphis, Tennessee (35.135° N 90.058° W) Status: Courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson caught wind of Parks’s arrest, she and the Women’s Political Council (WPC) jumped into action. A bus driver had verbally assaulted Robinson shortly after she moved to Montgomery to teach, so when she became president of the WPC, a local Black women’s professional organization that fostered civic engagement, she made bus desegregation a priority.

They hand-cranked 52,000 mimeographed political flyers in one night to advertise the planned boycott. Robinson initially asked citizens to protest for one day, Dr. Autrey says. “They weren’t sure where the boycott would lead. They had no idea it would last over a year.” However, local ministers and the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that formed to oversee the protests, took up the mantle and helped the boycott last.

6. The turnout in Montgomery was massive.

More than 45,000 people, representing 90 percent of the Black community in Montgomery at the time, participated in the boycott. “Even with social media today, I don’t think we would ever have the level of organization they were able to get from flyers and church sermons,” Burkhardt says.

7. Initially, the protestors weren't looking for Montgomery to desegregate its public transportation system.

The boycott organizers' demands didn’t require changing segregation laws—at first. Initially, the group was demanding seemingly simple courtesies, such as hiring Black drivers and having the buses stop on every corner in Black neighborhoods (just as they did in white neighborhoods). The also asked that white passengers fill the bus from the front and Black passengers from the back, so that Black passengers weren’t forced into standing-room only sections while white sections remained sparsely seated. Those goals gradually changed as the boycott continued and Browder v. Gayle moved through the federal and supreme courts.

8. Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 when he joined the movement.

John Goodwin/Getty Images

King was a relative newcomer when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), an organization founded on the same Christian principles of nonviolence that guided King throughout his career. His principles were put to an early test when an unknown white supremacist bombed his home on January 30, 1956. (Fortunately, no one was harmed.) King was chosen because he was largely unknown, unlike E.D. Nixon, the local NAACP leader, who was instrumental in organizing the community, but who also had a long history of confrontations with local politicians.

9. Carpools and underground food sales helped fund the boycott.

To help people avoid taking buses, Montgomery churches organized carpools. They purchased several station wagons to help with the operation, dubbing them “rolling churches.” However, local insurance companies wouldn’t provide coverage as they didn't want to support the protests, even indirectly. Instead, King found insurance through Lloyd’s of London, which, ironically, had once insured ships that carried enslaved people during 18th- and 19th-century ocean crossings.

Funding to buy these vehicles, insurance, and gas came from across the community, including from Georgia Gilmore, a cook who organized an informal diner called the Club from Nowhere to feed boycotters and raise money.

10. Working-class Black women were instrumental in the boycott’s success.

At the time of the boycott, Rosa Parks worked was a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, and she was hardly the only working-class woman who made the boycott a success. “Were it not for maids, cooks, and nannies, the boycott would not have succeeded,” Dr. Autrey says. “They were the primary riders, and they also received the brunt of the hostile treatment. These women were fed up and were primed to take a role in the boycott.”

Many women walked miles to work instead of riding the bus or even carpooling. When a reporter asked one such woman, Mother Pollard, if she was tired, she responded, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Though the Montgomery bus boycott ended more than 60 years ago, the effects of the movement are still felt—and honored—today. Beginning this month, a new initiative—spearheaded by Steven L. Reed, Montgomery’s first Black mayor—the city will be reserving one seat on every Montgomery bus in Rosa Parks’s honor.