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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

9 Unsung Heroes of the Underground Railroad

An illustration depicting fugitives along the Underground Railroad in Maryland, taken from William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.
An illustration depicting fugitives along the Underground Railroad in Maryland, taken from William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.
Philadelphia, Porter & Coates, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Considering that the massive network of hidden paths and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad stretched from the Deep South all the way to Canada, it makes sense that hundreds of people were involved in its operation. Some, like Harriet Tubman, were “conductors,” who led the rescue missions, while others—John Brown, for example—were “station masters,” hosting fugitives in their homes and arranging safe passage to freedom. Here are nine other valorous heroes who risked life and limb to help people on their way to liberty.

1. William Still

A sketch of William Still from Wilbur Henry Siebert and Albert Bushnell Hart's 1898 book The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom.Macmillan, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born to formerly enslaved parents in New Jersey in 1821, William Still moved to Philadelphia at age 23 and took up the abolitionist mantle in more ways than one. He taught himself to read and write, got a job as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and advanced through the organization until he was named chairman of its new Vigilance Committee in the early 1850s. In that position, Still oversaw the region’s network of safe houses—his own house among them—and raised money to finance key rescue missions, including a few of Harriet Tubman’s.

It’s estimated that Still ferried about 800 people to freedom during his tenure; one of them was his brother Peter. But there’s another reason he’s often referred to as “the Father of the Underground Railroad.” Still documented the stories of more than 600 escapees and published them all in a groundbreaking volume called The Underground Railroad in 1872, making him the only Black person ever to write and self-publish a firsthand account of activity on the Underground Railroad. He hoped that the “extraordinary determination and endeavor” exhibited in the harrowing narratives would inspire Black Americans to continue the struggle for civil rights.

“The race must not forget the rock from whence they were hewn, nor the pit from whence they were digged,” he wrote in the introduction. “Like other races, this newly emancipated people will need all the knowledge of their past condition which they can get.”

2. John P. Parker

Parker's house in Ripley, Ohio.Nyttend, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When John P. Parker was 8 years old, a merchant separated him from his enslaved mother in Norfolk, Virginia, and sold him to a doctor in Mobile, Alabama. There, Parker apprenticed at an iron foundry—and learned to read and write, with the help of the doctor’s children. At age 18, he persuaded one of the doctor’s patients to purchase him and let him gradually buy back his freedom with his foundry earnings. The plan worked, and Parker left for Ripley, Ohio, where he built a house, started a family, and patented a few popular mechanical parts for tobacco machines during a successful career as a foundryman.

Through it all, Parker made regular excursions across the Ohio River to spirit fugitives from Kentucky back to Ripley’s safe houses (one belonged to John Rankin, a prominent white abolitionist who lived less than a mile from Parker). Parker’s rescue missions were especially dangerous, partially because bounty hunters looking for fugitives knew who he was, and partially because Parker himself was dauntless. Once, an enslaver suspected a married couple would attempt to escape, so he took their baby and put him to sleep in his room. Parker snuck into the room, carefully plucked the child from the bed—where the enslaver also lay sleeping—and dashed back through the house. The enslaver awoke and tore after him, firing his pistol, but Parker and the family managed to escape across the river.

Parker recounted these rescues to journalist Frank M. Gregg during a series of interviews in the 1880s, but the manuscript sat forgotten in Duke University’s archives until historian Stuart Seeley Sprague unearthed it and published it in 1996.

3. and 4. Harriet Bell Hayden and Lewis Hayden

A portrait of Lewis Hayden from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.The Liberator, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born enslaved in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1812, Lewis Hayden watched enslavers tear apart his family not once, but twice. First, his siblings were sold to a different enslaver; and later, his wife and son were bought by Kentucky senator Henry Clay [PDF] and sold somewhere in the Deep South. Hayden never saw them again. In the early 1840s, he married an enslaved woman named Harriet Bell, adopted her son, and soon began plotting their escape.

With the help of Calvin Fairbank, a minister, and Delia Webster, a teacher, the Haydens fled their enslaver’s estate and eventually arrived safely in Canada. By 1846, they had returned to the U.S. and settled in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, where they opened a clothing store. Before long, Lewis and Harriet had joined the Boston Vigilance Committee and turned their home into a boarding house, which became a highly trafficked stop on the Underground Railroad.

A drawing of Harriet Bell Hayden from her obituary in The Cleveland Gazette.The Cleveland Gazette, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though slavery had been illegal in Massachusetts since 1783, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that enslaved people who had escaped to free states could still be found and returned to their enslavers in the South. The Haydens fearlessly protected hundreds of people from bounty hunters who tried to do just that. Ellen and William Craft, for example, had garnered widespread attention for their risky escape from slavery in Georgia, which involved Ellen impersonating a white man and William posing as her Black servant. When bounty hunters pursued them to the Haydens’ house, Lewis announced that he’d readily blow up the whole property with the two kegs of gunpowder he kept inside if they tried to kidnap the Crafts. The bounty hunters didn’t chance it, and left empty-handed.

Lewis also helped recruit Black soldiers for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry—one of the Union’s first all-Black military units—and was even elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1873. When he died in 1889, Boston’s city council praised him as “one of the pioneers in the freeing of this country from the curse of slavery.” Harriet, who died in 1893, donated her entire estate to Harvard Medical School for the purpose of establishing a scholarship for Black students, which still exists today.

5. Henrietta Bowers Duterte

A photo of Henrietta Bowers Duterte with one of her children.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1852, Henrietta Bowers, a 35-year-old tailor, married a Haitian-American undertaker named Francis A. Duterte. They both came from well-respected Philadelphia families, and Francis’s mortuary was successful; in other words, it should have been a long, happy union. But by the end of that decade, Henrietta was alone: Her children had all died young, and Francis had also passed away suddenly. Instead of handing the mortuary business over to a man—which would have been expected at the time—Henrietta took it over and, in addition to running the mortuary, turned it into an especially clandestine stop on the Underground Railroad.

Not only did Henrietta use funeral processions as opportunities to help disguised fugitives slip unnoticed through the city, but she also sometimes smuggled them out of Philadelphia in actual coffins. The mortuary continued to be lucrative, and Henrietta funneled the profits into organizations that served Philadelphia’s Black community, like the First Colored Church and Stephen Smith’s Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons. In 1866, she helped arrange the Freedman’s Aid Society Fair to support formerly enslaved people in Tennessee.

6. David Ruggles

A political cartoon depicting a slave owner raging against Ruggles and two other abolitionists who had helped one of his servants escape.Edward Williams Clay, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

David Ruggles, born free in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1810, moved to New York City at age 17 and opened a grocery shop, which he staffed with emancipated Black Americans. Before long, Ruggles pivoted to lending and selling abolitionist books, pamphlets, and newspapers, too, making him the nation’s first Black bookstore owner. In 1835, Ruggles and other local abolitionists founded the New York Vigilance Committee, an interracial organization which, like the one in Philadelphia, helped people escape from slavery. Not only did he provide legal aid to Black Americans targeted by bounty hunters, but he also housed many fugitives in his own home on Lispenard Street.

One of these temporary guests was Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and arrived in New York penniless and famished in 1838. He was rescued, he explained in his 1845 autobiography, “by the humane hand of Mr. David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance, I shall never forget.” Douglass wrote to his fiancée, Anna, who joined him within a few days, and Ruggles even arranged a marriage ceremony in the house. Soon after the wedding, Ruggles gave the couple $5 and booked their passage on a steamship to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Throughout his years as an Underground Railroad station master, Ruggles distributed countless anti-slavery publications and advocated for “practical abolitionism,” or the idea that each person should actively take part in emancipating Black Americans. He wasn’t without enemies: twice his shop was burned down, and he was physically attacked on several occasions. By his late twenties, Ruggles’s health was failing, and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child encouraged him to come live with the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a self-sufficient community in Florence, Massachusetts, that championed equal rights for all. There, Ruggles regained some of his strength through hydrotherapy, and he eventually opened his own hydrotherapy hospital, where Douglass often visited him. When he died at age 39, it was Douglass who wrote his obituary.

7. and 8. Harriet Forten Purvis and Robert Purvis

A daguerroeotype of Robert Purvis from the 1840s.Boston Public Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Robert Purvis, the son of a white man and a free Black woman, was active in practically all facets of Philadelphia’s anti-slavery movement from the 1830s through the Civil War. He helped found and lead the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia and its Vigilance Committee, which offered boarding, clothing, medical attention, legal counsel, and northern passage to fugitives; and he also worked alongside prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society a few years later.

Since women weren’t originally allowed to be members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Robert’s wife, Harriet Forten Purvis, joined Lucretia Mott and other activists in forming the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in December 1833. Harriet, like Mott, would go on to become a leader in the suffrage movement, too.

Robert and Harriet had both come from extremely successful and respected Philadelphia families, and they used their influence—and financial resources—to assist escapees in any way they could. Their house on Lombard Street became a well-traversed thoroughfare for fugitives heading north.

“He was President of the ‘Underground Railroad,’ and throughout that long period of peril his house was a well-known station where his horses and carriages and his personal attendance were ever at the service of the travelers upon that road,” read Robert's 1898 obituary in The New York Times.

A portrait of Harriet Forten Purvis circa 1874. ExplorePAhistory.com // Public Domain

The couple’s high-profile work sometimes made them a target for those who opposed the upward mobility of Black Americans. In August 1842, a parade celebrating the eighth anniversary of the end of slavery in the British West Indies devolved into violence when an Irish mob—resenting their own low position in society—attacked the revelers and began looting and setting fire to Black-owned buildings along the street. The rioters planned to progress to the Purvises' house, where Robert stood armed and waiting, but a Catholic priest reportedly diverted them.

After that, Robert and Harriet moved their family to a farmhouse in Byberry, a northeastern neighborhood of Philadelphia, and promptly turned their new estate into another station on the Underground Railroad. Robert approximated that between 1831 and 1861, he had helped emancipate about one person per day (though it’s possible that this calculation included his broader work with various anti-slavery organizations).

9. Samuel D. Burris

A sketch of Samuel D. Burris from William Still's book The Underground Railroad.Delaware Historical & Cultural Affairs, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Samuel D. Burris worked tirelessly during the 1840s to lead fugitives through his home state of Delaware and into Philadelphia, where he lived with his wife and children. Though Burris was a free man, he could be imprisoned and sold into slavery if caught helping fugitives in Delaware—and in 1847, he was.

Officials apprehended Burris when he was trying to smuggle a woman named Maria Matthews onto a steamship. Since they set his bail at $5000 (more than $157,000 today), he was forced to spend months in jail while awaiting trial. “They uphold and applaud those slave traffickers, and those inhuman and unmerciful leeches, in their soul-damning conduct, by making the colored people legal subjects for their bloody principles to feast on,” he wrote from his cell, in a letter that was later published in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.

On November 2, 1847, Burris was convicted, fined $500, and sentenced to 10 more months in prison. After that, he’d be sold into slavery for 14 years. While Burris was serving his 10-month sentence, a group of Philadelphia abolitionists amassed $500 and sent a Quaker named Isaac Flint to pose as a trader and purchase Burris at the auction. Luckily, Flint ended up being the highest bidder (though according to William Still’s account in The Underground Railroad, luck had little to do with it: Flint savvily bought off a Baltimore trader who had tried to top his bid).

“[Burris] was not by any means aware of the fact that he had fallen into the hands of friends, but, on the contrary, evidently labored under the impression that his freedom was gone,” Still wrote. “The joyful news was whispered in the ear of Burris that all was right; that he had been bought with abolition gold to save him from going south.”

As Delaware State University historian Robin Krawitz told CNN, Burris continued helping fugitives after his release, and angry Delawarians actually petitioned the government to discipline him more severely. After officials enacted legislation that recommended public whipping as punishment for anyone caught a second time, Burris halted his operations in Delaware. Instead, he moved to San Francisco, where he raised funds to help newly freed people establish themselves.