Catherine the Great Letter Extolling the Virtues of Vaccination Is Up for Auction

The Russian empress, who was inoculated against smallpox in 1768, was an early proponent of the practice

Catherine the Great portrait and letter
The letter will be sold alongside a portrait of the Russian empress on December 1. Courtesy of McDougall’s

A 1787 letter that finds Catherine the Great strategizing about how to get the Russian public inoculated against smallpox is going up for auction next month, reports Ola Cichowlas for Agence France-Press (AFP).

“[O]ne of the most important [tasks] should be the introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great harm, especially among ordinary people,” the Russian empress wrote to Count Pyotr Aleksandrovich Rumyantsev. “Such inoculation should be common everywhere.”

The missive includes ideas about how to accomplish this goal, including setting up lodging in abandoned monasteries and convents for people who traveled from afar to get inoculated.

McDougall’s, a London-based auction house that specializes in Russian art, will sell the letter alongside a portrait of the empress in a December 1 auction, reports Yasemin Saplakoglu for Live Science. The items, estimated to be worth a total of up to $1.6 million, are on display in Moscow through November 30.

Edward Jenner performing a vaccination
Until Edward Jenner's introduction of a cowpox-based vaccine in 1796, inoculation against smallpox involved introducing the virus itself into patients' bodies. Wellcome Collection under public domain

At the time the letter was penned, smallpox posed a devastating global threat. In the absence of vaccines, the disease killed three out of every ten people who contracted it, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Known as variolation, the inoculation method promoted by Catherine was far more dangerous than modern vaccines, involving the introduction of the smallpox virus itself into people’s bodies. It was only in 1796 that British doctor Edward Jenner began experimenting with using the far less deadly cowpox as a form of vaccination against smallpox.

To inoculate people through variolation, doctors cut incisions in healthy people’s arms and introduced small amounts of material from the pustules of an individual suffering from the disease. The method carried about a 2 to 3 percent risk of death, versus the natural smallpox death rate of 30 percent.

Performed correctly, wrote Cody Cassidy for Wired last year, variolation provided immunity against the disease—but it came with risks: namely, “[t]oo potent a dose and the patient would contract a dangerous case; too little and they wouldn’t produce antibodies.” Similar protective procedures existed in parts of the Ottoman Empire and Africa, but when introduced in Russia in the 18th century, many people opposed them.

“Doctors howled against the insane novelty, preachers howled at it from church pulpits,” wrote Russian historian Sergei Soloviev, as quoted by McDougall’s. “Catherine decided to put an end to the Russian public’s hesitation by her own example.”

Cartoon showing Edward Jenner, Thomas Dimsdale and George Rose seeing off opponents of vaccination.
1808 cartoon showing Edward Jenner, Thomas Dimsdale and George Rose seeing off opponents of vaccination. Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0

And so, in 1768, Catherine had the English doctor Thomas Dimsdale travel to St. Petersburg to inoculate her and her son, the future Paul I, against smallpox.

“Just in case the procedure failed, and she died, Catherine prudently provided the doctor with protection against any reprisals by her subjects, and she ordered that a mail carriage should be kept ready for him, as he might need to leave the country in a hurry,” notes McDougall’s in the lot listing.

Catherine’s interest in vaccination was part of her broader desire to spread Enlightenment ideals, wrote Meilan Solly for Smithsonian magazine last year. Hailing from a noble but impoverished Prussian family, she rose to power by marrying the grandson of Peter the Great and organizing a coup against him just months after he took the throne in 1762. Over more than three decades in power, Catherine led aggressive military actions, organized major artistic and cultural projects, and attempted—unsuccessfully—to abolish Russia’s feudal system.

The empress promoted vaccination with the distribution of printed material and a ballet, Prejudice Defeated, which celebrated the victory of science over superstition. Nevertheless, inoculation against smallpox remained far from universal during her reign. 

Speaking at a press viewing of the letter and portrait last week, historian Oleg Khromov called the letter “unique, especially given the situation we are all in,” according to AFP. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed for people to get vaccinated against Covid-19, only about 40 percent of Russians have been fully vaccinated to date.

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