The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox
Jennifer Lee Carrell
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.
Michel Carmona translated by Patrick Camiller
Ivan R. Dee
Paris, still arguably the world’s most beautiful and livable metropolis, has not been lucky lately. During the early 1970s, the construction of the Maine-Montparnasse skyscraper, on the Left Bank, blighted the city’s hitherto harmonious center. In the 1980s and ’90s, President François Mitterrand presided over the addition of other atrocities, including the new opera house—a soulless, clunky box—and the dysfunctional Bibliothèque Nationale, where books, stored in the library’s glass towers, are vulnerable to sunlight and heat.
The mid-19th century renovation of Paris, under the leadership of Georges-Eugène Haussmann (a sort of French Robert Moses), offers an inspiring counterpoint to these late 20th-century depredations. In his eminently readable biography, Michel Carmona surveys Haussmann’s herculean campaign, an effort that ultimately transformed a medieval warren of dark, slum-filled streets and alleys into the airy City of Light with its tree-lined boulevards and handsome apartment buildings.
Carmona, a professor of urban planning at the Sorbonne, points out that Emperor Napoléon III (who reigned from 1852-1870 and was the nephew of Napoléon I) actually came up with most of the ideas for renovating Paris. It was he who drew up a color-coded map of the city, outlining his ideas for opening clogged thoroughfares, cleaning up squalor, and creating schools, hospitals and public parks such as the Bois de Boulogne. Haussmann, a career civil servant, would serve as the emperor’s main functionary in remaking the city.
A descendant of German Lutherans who settled in Alsace in the 16th century, Haussmann was born in 1809 in a Paris house that would be demolished during his renovation. After law studies, he opted for the civil service. In 1853, Napoléon III appointed him prefect of the departement of the Seine, making him in effect mayor of Paris.
Over the next 17 years, Haussmann razed much of the city. He laid out 12 grand avenues radiating from the Arc de Triomphe. He doubled the supply of drinking water, modernized the sewage system and rebuilt ten bridges. In the process, he dislodged 350,000 people. Most were poor families driven from slums to the suburbs. "The new Paris is made for people with money," Carmona writes. Unlike in most large American cities, those who can afford to, still live in the center of Paris; those who cannot are consigned to the suburbs.
The author gives short shrift to the heartbreak of social upheaval on such a huge scale. But lovers of Paris will find Carmona’s chronicle a treasurehouse of urban lore.