Book Review: “Lady Mary Wortley Montagu Crushes Smallpox” by Drew Conrad

Children will sit there and listen to just about any story you tell them. My three-year-old will sit and “read along” with me while I tell her stories about historical and fantastical figures. She has even memorized the names and superpowers of most DC Comics heroes because of children’s books based on those characters. Like me, she knows Superman is an immigrant, trying to do what is right and fighting for Truth, Justice and The American Way. It’s cute to see her absorb all that information so easily.

Childhood is the perfect age to start introducing children to some concepts they will have to deal with as they grow up. Right now, my three-year-old knows that she gets vaccines “to be strong,” but she has no clue how that strength comes about or how vaccines work. As a result, I’ve been looking for ways to introduce her to the concept of vaccines and how they are a public health intervention that ranks right up there with handwashing, water sanitation and — in the era of chronic disease — avoiding unhealthy habits like smoking or a sedentary lifestyle.

When I was a child, my mother bought me “The Value of Believing in Yourself” by Spencer Johnson, written in 1975. It was a book about Louis Pasteur and his work toward developing the rabies vaccine. I was ten years old, and I think it was one of the many things my parents did to set me on the path to become an epidemiologist, doctor of public health, and editor of the History of Vaccines project. Today, I’d like to introduce you to “Lady Mary Wortley Montagu Crushes Smallpox” by Drew Conrad, a book about an influential woman who certainly had a hand in advancing the discovery of the smallpox vaccine in the 1700s.

The book is relatively short, but chock-full of information contained in a readable story for children who have just started reading or are in the process of learning how to read longer formats without images. It tells the story of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a British aristocrat, who wrote letters on her observations of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1700s as she traveled with her husband, the British Ambassador. In 1715, Lady Mary contracted smallpox and survived, albeit a bit scarred from the poxes caused by the disease. When she and her husband traveled to what is modern-day Turkey, she heard of an interesting practice by the people there.

Much like Edward Jenner would notice about the milkmaids in the English countryside in the late 1700s, Lady Mary noticed that many people in the Ottoman Empire did not have the scars of smallpox. She learned that the people there practiced variolation, the deliberate injection of smallpox to produce a “manageable” disease that didn’t leave a person scarred, more often than not. Lady Mary inquired more about the practice, and she even had her child variolated. Her letters back to Britain about the practice were influential in expanding the practice beyond the Ottoman Empire. Once social influencers like the nobility started the practice, more people were open to the idea. While this was happening, Cotton Mather in Massachusetts — with Onesimus’ information — was also advocating for inoculation.

The book by Mr. Conrad synthesizes the whole story of how Lady Mary influenced the advancement of medical science into a short story that is worth reading. Children will appreciate the brevity of the story while their parents will appreciate the historical and scientific lesson being taught to their children. The language is not complicated; Mr. Conrad does not get into the weeds of immunology or virology, nor does he get too complicated into the politics of the time and how few would be willing to follow the medical practices of “barbarians” in Asia Minor. This is okay as those topics are better explored in high school or early college.

Personally, I would recommend this book to parents of children who are in the first grade on up and want their children introduced to an interesting person in history and the first steps that the West was taking toward vaccination. This is the perfect book for a book report or to include as part of a series to introduce children to topics that affect us today. They will learn how social influencers can influence public health interventions in an era where information and misinformation is so rampant on social media. They will also appreciate the love Lady Mary showed toward her children and her people in wanting to share the practice of inoculation.

“Lady Mary Wortley Montagu Chrushes Smallpox” is available here: https://splashread.com/lady-mary-wortley-montagu-crushes-smallpox/

*Note: Mr. Conrad provided a free copy of his book, but I had already bought one for my electronic reader. Also, this review represents my views and not necessarily those of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen