That time Catherine the Great championed the smallpox vaccination

Baroque portrait of a fashion ruler.
Enlarge / Portrait of Catherine the Great. Her 1787 letter to Count Piotr Aleksandrovich Rumiantsev – now up for auction – called for a national vaccination campaign against smallpox.

During her long reign, Catherine the Great turned Russia into a European power. She was also a leader in public health policy, advocating a nationwide vaccination campaign against smallpox at a time when many viewed it with distrust. A letter from the queen outlining her vaccination strategy is up for auction of MacDougall’s in London. Included in the sale is a portrait of the king as “The Legal Person in the Temple of Justice,” painted by Dmitry Levitsky, who was a favorite of the Russian court in the 1770s and 1780s. The two items are expected to sell for up to $1.6 million.

Like we were previously reported, World Health Organization declared smallpox became a disease that was eradicated in 1979, and many people do not remember how devastating smallpox could be. It begins with a high fever and intense vomiting, followed by a skin rash. The victim then develops sores, which eventually scab over and peel off, leaving a scar on the skin. About three tenths of those infected died, and those who survived were often severely scarred for life, sometimes even blind or permanently disabled.

The Chinese have been vaccinating people against smallpox as early as the 1500s. European doctors in the early 18th century relied on mutagenesis (using smallpox to induce immunity) to control the spread of the disease. spread of smallpox, in which debris from smallpox blisters is scratched on a person’s arm or inhaled through the nose. While those treated continued to develop common smallpox symptoms such as fever and rash, the death toll was significantly lower.

In the late 1700s, a small number of doctors in England and Germany noticed that people with milder smallpox infections seemed to be immune to smallpox, and there were some early human vaccination tests. For example, in 1774, a farmer named Benjamin Jesty of Dorset, England, successfully vaccinated his wife and children against cowpox. But it was British doctor Edward Jenner who is credited? with the introduction of smallpox vaccine into mainstream medical practice following the administration of cowpox against smallpox to a gardener’s son in May 1796.

Catherine the Great Letter to Count Petr Aleksandrovich Rumiantsev is dated April 20, 1787, and thus predates Jenner’s medical breakthrough by almost 10 years. The king was an age-old horror of smallpox from her childhood, and her husband, Grand Duke Piotr Fedorovich, contracted the disease the day before their wedding, leaving him permanently disfigured.

So, naturally, Catherine feared for her son’s health when another outbreak of smallpox hit. She was advised to transplant it to her son and heir Pavel Petrovich, but felt it would be “shameful not to start with myself.” This made her significantly enlightened for the time, when even many Russian doctors opposed the method. Catherine invited an English doctor named Thomas Dimsdale Petersburg, because he immunized the entire British Royal Family and aristocracy against smallpox. She made sure to have a mail van ready so that Dimsdale could escape quickly if the experiment went wrong and Catherine succumbed to the disease, much to the outrage of the people.

Dimsdale harvested smallpox content from a sergeant’s young son and used it to transplant into Catherine. She experienced a week of mild discomfort but reported a full recovery on October 29, 1768. Her son was transplanted shortly thereafter. “Starting with me and my son, who is also recovering, there is no noble house without many vaccinated people,” she wrote in a letter to Count Ivan Grigorievuch Chernyshev, her ambassador in the UK. “Many people regret that they got smallpox naturally and so couldn’t be trendy.”

Unfortunately, the prevalence of smallpox vaccination among the nobility did not spread to the general Russian population, especially in the outer regions of the empire. That is what prompted Catherine’s 1787 letter to the earl, outlining a strategy for a nationwide vaccination campaign. Here is the content of the letter:

Count Piotr Aleksandrovich, among other tasks assigned to you by the Welfare Department in the provinces, one of the most important must be to introduce vaccination against smallpox, which, as we know, causes cause great harm, especially to ordinary people. Such vaccination should be universal, and now everything is more convenient, since most districts have a doctor or medical staff and do not require too much expense.

As an example of this, on the first occasion in each town of the province, order a census of the remaining monastic settlements or the abolition of small monasteries, and build up the number of dwellings minimum for the stay of those who cannot be vaccinated at home; the money needed for this can be borrowed from the town’s revenue. The provincial doctors may be right in this regard, especially since there are now people sent from us with wages below the norm: therefore, since Dr. Gund in Novgorod-Seversky can do successfully performed this transplant, then added three hundred rubles to his usual. wages from residual income from the old convent quarters. By the way, we still favor you.

The letter was signed “Iekaterina.” That time Catherine the Great championed the smallpox vaccination


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