Variolation

macpherson at molbiol.ox.ac.uk macpherson at molbiol.ox.ac.uk
Tue Sep 19 13:01:28 EST 1995


Regarding variolation, I would recommend the account given in the old but 
classic textbook: "Immunology for students of medicine", Humphrey and White, 
3rd Edn., 1970.  On pages one and two they give a pellucid description of the 
practice as described by Voltaire in his second volume of letters, 1733. V. 
describes how Lady Wortley Montague, who in the reign of King George the 1st, was 
the wife of the ambassador in Constantinople, variolated her infant against the 
advice of her chaplain, who thought it an unchristian operation.  Lady 
Montague then communicated the success of the operation to the Princess of 
Wales.  Voltaire states that the practice originated from the inhabitants of 
Circassia: "They are poor, and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed 'tis 
in them they chiefly trade.  They furnish with beauties the seraglios of the 
Turkish Sultan, of the Persian Sophy, and of all those who are wealthy enough 
to purchase and maintain such precious merchandise.  These maidens are very 
honourably and virtuously instructed to fondle and caress men, are taught 
dances of a very mobile and effiminate kind; and how to heighten by the most 
voluptous artifices, the pleasures of their disdainful masters for whom they 
are designed".  However he adds "frequently, when the smallpox was epidemical, 
trade was suspended for several years, which thinned very considerably the 
seraglios of Persia and Turkey".  "In order to preserve the life and beauty of 
their children, the thing remaining was, to give them the smallpox in their 
infant years.  This they did by inoculating in the body of a child, a pustule 
taken from the most regular, and at the same time the most favourable sort of 
smallpox that could be procured".

H & W in a footnote state that variolation was practised widely, especially in 
the country and smaller towns, and its efficacy in preventing the deaths from 
smallpox in small children and of women at childbirth was probably the major 
cause of the the great increase in population which began during the first 
half of the eighteenth century.

Hope this is of interest.

Gordon MacPherson 



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