Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – Trailblazer In Medicine

Jenny Rudd, a volunteer guide at Wentworth Castle Gardens explores the significance of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and why we are honouring her memory and achievements 300 years later.

The Sun Monument, Wentworth Castle Gardens

In April 1721 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced inoculation against smallpox into England from Turkey. This often forgotten medical pioneer is remembered at Wentworth Castle Gardens, near Barnsley, in the form of an inscription on an obelisk topped by a golden globe – the ‘Sun Monument’. Erected in 1762 it is unique in being the first monument to celebrate the intellectual achievement of a woman in Britain. 

Colour Forms – straws upon the water from Fabric Lenny on Vimeo.

Today we are celebrating the 300th year anniversary of this remarkable woman through the artwork, ‘Colour Forms – straws upon the water’, created by artists Paul Slater and Katrina Whale during a yearlong artist’s residency at Wentworth Castle Gardens. The artwork, which consists of a series of hand painted spheres, a molecular structure and two bespoke benches, is situated in the Fernery, accompanied by a specially composed soundtrack

 “As the project developed it was striking to discover how her introduction of the Smallpox inoculation into England resonated with the current research being undertaken in the development of vaccines for the Coronavirus.” Paul Slater & Katrina Whale

Molly Sculpture by Lenny and Whale. Photo credit Timm Cleasby

The artists responded to the pandemic through online engagement with the families of Silkstone Primary School who enjoyed bespoke arts activities and packs as part of their home-schooled curriculum.  The families created and shared over 100 drawings and photographs to inform the final artworks.

Mother Sphere Sculpture by Lenny and Whale. Photo credit Timm Cleasby

Following the display at Wentworth Castle Gardens (16th March – 13th April) the artwork will go on a mini-tour, moving to Cannon Hall Gardens (15th April – 27th May) and Elsecar Heritage Centre (1st – 9th June). To discover more visit:—straws-upon-the-water

The Artists in Residence project at Wentworth Castle Gardens has been funded as part of Wentworth and Elsecar Great Place a partnership between the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), Arts Council England (ACE) and supported by Historic England.

Who was this remarkable woman who inspired so many and how did she make her mark in history?

Mary Pierrepont was born in Nottinghamshire in 1689 to the highest of nobility. The privilege of her birth saw her mixing in the same circles as politicians, writers, and Royalty.  As a child she immersed herself in the library in her home at Thoresby Hall. She taught herself Latin in order to access the knowledge that was usually labelled ‘men only’. She had serious literary aspirations and identified as a writer throughout her life.

Painting of English tea in High Society

Mary gained notoriety when she eloped with MP, Edward Wortley Montagu in 1712. Her celebrity status as a beauty, wit and a writer of ironic prose was heightened by her introduction to the Royal Court of George 1st in 1714. But in December 1715 disaster struck!

Photographs of a face with the effects of smallpox

Lady Mary became seriously ill with smallpox. The scourge of its age, smallpox killed 1 in 4 sufferers in 18th Century Britain and flared into frequent epidemics across Western Europe. There was no cure for the ‘Speckled Monster’ as it came to be known. Survivors were often blinded and disfigured but gained lifelong immunity to the deadly disease.

Mary had lost her only brother to smallpox in 1713. She survived but was left terribly scarred, her legendary beauty gone.

However, Mary’s brush with death was about to take a twist of fate, which would change the face of medical practice forever…

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montague in Turkish costume

In 1716 Mary travelled to Turkey with her now ‘Ambassador’ husband, son, and entourage. Mary was a consummate traveller. Openminded and curious about local customs, she was particularly interested in understanding the lives of women and sought access to the ‘female only’ spaces in Islamic society. She was the first western women to write detailed impressions of Eastern culture. 

Painting of 18th Century Turkish Hammam (bath house)

Whilst in Constantinople Mary visited a Hammam (bath house). It was here that she noticed the ‘perfect skin’ of the women within, unscarred, as she was, by smallpox. Mary learnt how ‘inoculation’ tamed the deadly disease. Her enquiries led Mary to be invited to an ‘inoculation party’, where a small amount of mild smallpox matter was applied, via a needle, to a scratch on a child’s arm. The child went on to develop slight symptoms whilst gaining lifelong immunity.

Inoculation must have seemed like a miracle to Mary. It provided salvation from the horror of a disease that had touched her life with such cruelty.

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montague and her son Edward

Convinced of its safety and effectiveness Mary had her own son, Edward, inoculated against smallpox by an old Turkish woman and her Scottish Surgeon.

Following her return to Britain Mary knew that she would have to battle to champion her cause. As an Oriental folklore practice inoculation was viewed with intense scepticism by a medical establishment who viewed it as:

“good for a pleasant shiver of curiosity at the bizarre and backward practises of the East, but no more.”   

                        Letter to ‘Philisophical Transactions of The Royal Society’, 1714

Mary also knew that a patriarchal society was unlikely to adopt a scientific innovation introduced or practiced by women.

Mary bided her time until April 1721 when London was experiencing the horror of yet another smallpox epidemic. Her friends were dying and smallpox had reached the Royal household.

Painting of inoculation in 18th Century high society

Mary convinced her cautious surgeon Charles Maitland to inoculate her three year old namesake daughter. They invited eminent Physicians and Mary’s ‘high society’ contacts to witness her speedy recovery. The King got word of this 1st successful experiment. Concerned for the health of his own family, he agreed to more.

Questionable medical ethics saw 6 condemned prisoners and a dozen orphans being lined up to be the next ‘guinea pigs’. All survived with only mild symptoms, but with the promise of lifelong immunity. George 1st daughter- in- law, Princess Caroline was convinced enough to inoculate her own children. Royal endorsement saw the procedure spread like wildfire amongst the nobility of the land.

Cartoon of a 18th Century physician bloodletting a patient

Inoculation was an idea ahead of its time. Physicians refused to accept the simple Turkish technique Mary advocated. Instead, they incorporated it into complex and costly ‘Humoral’ medical practices of the day. Unnecessary bleeding, purging, and vomiting accompanied the inoculation. The danger of infection at the wound site and the need for the inoculee to isolate for 3 weeks limited the effectiveness of the procedure.

Mary was hugely frustrated. She was called on to supervise friend’s inoculations using a practice she abhorred. She was abused verbally and in print from those who considered her an ‘un-natural’ mother for exposing her child to a deadly disease.

18th Century cowpox cartoon

It was not until 75 years later in 1796 when Edward Jenner developed cowpox ‘vaccination’ that inoculation was simplified and the need to isolate was removed. Mary’s cause was vindicated at last, but not in her lifetime.

Portrait of William Wentworth

Barnsley’s own William Wentworth, the 2nd Earl of Strafford, recognised Mary’s achievement. He was inoculated as a child and dedicated the Sun Monument to Lady Mary after her death in 1762.

Portraits of Edward Jenner & Lady Mary Wortley Montague

Edward Jenner is remembered as the ‘father of vaccination’. But it was Mary, who was the true ‘mother of inoculation’. Often overlooked by history it was she who took the first step in introducing preventative medicine to Western Europe 300 years ago. An achievement that could not have more contemporary relevance given the mass vaccination programme against Covid 19 today.

To learn more about Lady Mary Wortley Montague and ‘The Speckled Monster’ visit:

Watch a talk which Jenny gave to staff and volunteers in March 2021:


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