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Journal of the Plague Years

Two courageous pioneers showed how a fearsome scourge could be defeated

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The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox

Jennifer Lee Carrell
Dutton, $24.95
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In these dire days, when fear of epidemic is great, it seems peculiar to have found pleasure in reading a book about smallpox in the 18th century, early attempts at inoculation and two heroic figures who were both survivors of this terrifying disease.

The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Smithsonian contributor Jennifer Lee Carrell is the highly engrossing story of an English aristocrat, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and a Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, whose scarred faces showed they had survived the disease. Neither one invented inoculation—a precursor to vaccination that used active smallpox cells to invoke a milder strain of the disease—but they were crucial catalysts in a time when European medicine was helpless against the disease but loath to admit it.

The book illuminates the lives of the two pioneers who were both determined to prove that methods of inoculation could work. Hidden in the unrecorded history of folk medicine of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Africa were vital clues to successful precautions taken by the local people to defeat smallpox. Oral accounts came to the attention of Lady Mary, once a great beauty, who wore a silken veil to hide her pitted face, and the stubborn and courageous American doctor. Both had their own children inoculated, knowing the risks involved.

Carrell eloquently evokes the world inhabited by these two brave figures. There are descriptions of flowers, dresses, neighborhoods, menus and superstitions. She even found out what curses would have been hurled against the doctor in Boston. “Raw Head and Bloody Bones,” a mob howled outside the Boylston house, throwing pebbles, rotten fruit and eggs. They thought his inoculations were demonic and called him a murderer. Another Boston doctor called him “illiterate, ignorant, confused, rash, mischievous, negligent, inconsiderate.” Boylston had successfully inoculated his little son Tommy and two slaves. One of the myths about inoculation was that it did not produce a true smallpox in the patient but a spurious case of chicken pox. Zabdiel knew better.

To inoculate, Dr. Boylston first pricked a pustule on the body of a smallpox victim and deposited the fluid in a vial he carried around his neck. After lightly cutting the skin of a patient he mixed a drop of blood with a drop of the fluid, which he applied with the point of a quill. The wound was bandaged and the patient then showed symptoms of the disease before recovering, usually without scars.

The book begins with the life of the privileged and intelligent Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. During her illness, surgeons arrived to “bleed” her in the belief this would clean the poison in her blood. When at last she looked at her face in a mirror, it was not recognizable.

After her husband was appointed British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a new, happier life began for Lady Mary. She studied Turkish poetry, music, cookery and the language. She learned how Turks protected themselves from smallpox. The process was called engrafting. On March 18, 1718, the chief Inoculatress of Constantinople, veiled from head to toe in black, inoculated Lady Mary’s small son Edward, who recovered nicely.

It was Edward Jenner, an Englishman, who would, in 1796, use cowpox to inoculate against smallpox. The word “vaccination” is from vaccinnia, the Latin term for the cowpox virus. “It was as if an angel’s trumpet had sounded over the earth,” an admirer said. In this splendid book we learn how two people fought ignorance by taking enormous risks. Carrell tells this gripping story with ardor and skill.

Reviewer Gloria Emerson’s most recent book is the novel Loving Graham Greene.

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