The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist

Book review

By Jo Willett; reviewed by Dee Cornwallis-Doran, published 7th September 2021

The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist, Jo Willett, Pen and Sword, 2021, 256p, £25-00. ISBN 9781526779380

Mary Wortley Montagu was baptised on 26 May 1689 and died on 21 August 1762 in London. From a wealthy aristocratic family, she had great intellectual curiosity and the opportunities to pursue various of her interests.

She fought on behalf of a number of women against the assumption of male control of finances. She was a significant poet. Among her literary contemporaries was Alexander Pope but their friendship of several years ended fractiously.

In 1716 Mary’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed Ambassador to the Turkish court. Whilst in Turkey Mary learned about and observed the practice – usually by old women – of introducing a minute quantity of live smallpox pus into small cuts made in the skin of the recipients. This procedure saved the lives of many Turks. In contrast, in outbreaks of smallpox in England large numbers of deaths were usual. As a young woman Mary had survived the disease herself but was left scarred. Included in Mary’s entourage was her family doctor, Charles Maitland, whom she asked to oversee the inoculation of her young son. The child never succumbed to the disease.

On returning to England Mary became an influential advocate for inoculation. However, as the medical profession was then – and for long after – exclusively male, Charles Maitland became the public face of the inoculation campaign. Even today many more will have heard of the later Edward Jenner and his cowpox-derived vaccine than of the pioneering Mary Wortley Montagu.

Despite the nine pages of introduction to ‘characters’ mentioned in this work, an exceptionally long bibliography and rather anodyne footnotes, this book is recommended to anyone interested in medical history or early feminism.