A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

a pox on you: Ottomans and the cure for smallpox

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 2, 2009

Last week I was asked to take a look at the John Carter Brown Library‘s exhibit “Islamic Encounters”, which is available for viewing both in-person and online. Its a very sweet exhibit, and an impressive effort by the library to encourage its collection, which focuses on books and manuscripts written by Europeans traveling abroad, to speak more broadly and to new audiences.

While looking at the artifacts selected for the “Exchange of Knowledge” section, I learned something that utterly blew me away:

Amid a smallpox epidemic in the city of Boston, Cotton Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston fought deep public resistance in order to implement smallpox inoculation as a public health measure. Mather cited the customary use of inoculation in Constantinople, and was deeply impatient with those who objected to adopting any practice used by the Turks. Mather knew the Koran well and cited it often in his theological writing.

I suspect that Mather’s Quranic citations were used for rather partisan purposes – but I had no idea that the idea of smallpox inoculation came to us from the Ottomans. Where was this story when I was taught that it came from Jenner’s study of milkmaids whose exposure to cowpox made them resistant to smallpox?

Naturally, I turned to Google for more information. I found further confirmation in an article on Edward Jenner published in Baylor University’s medical journal, which states:

Inoculation, hereafter referred to as variolation, was likely practiced in Africa, India, and China long before the 18th century, when it was introduced to Europe. In 1670, Circassian traders introduced variolation to the Turkish “Ottoman” Empire. Women from the Caucasus, who were in great demand in the Turkish sultan’s harem in Istanbul because of their legendary beauty, were inoculated as children in parts of their bodies where scars would not be seen. These women must also have brought the practice of variolation to the court of the Sublime Porte.

Well, I think the characterization of the Ottoman Empire as a Turkish “Ottoman” Empire is questionable, but the Circassian women and their “moon-faced” beauty is certainly a part of the Empire’s history. Who knew that they brought health along with good looks!

The article continues:

Variolation came to Europe at the beginning of the 18th century with the arrival of travelers from Istanbul. It was the continued advocacy of the English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montague that was responsible for the introduction of variolation in England. In 1715, Lady Montague suffered from an episode of smallpox, which severely disfigured her beautiful face. Her 20-year-old brother died of the illness 18 months later.

In 1717, Lady Montague’s husband, Edward Wortley Montague, was appointed ambassador to the Sublime Porte. A few weeks after their arrival in Istanbul, Lady Montague wrote to her friend about the method of variolation used at the Ottoman court. Lady Montague was so determined to prevent the ravages of smallpox that she ordered the embassy surgeon, Charles Maitland, to inoculate her 5-year-old son. The inoculation procedure was performed in March 1718. Upon their return to London in April 1721, Lady Montague had Charles Maitland inoculate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of physicians of the royal court.

Mather and a few other Boston-based physicians had heard of inoculation through European contacts, and brought the practice to the American colonies; Jenner’s work on vaccination began in the later 1700s, and drew heavily upon earlier practices of inoculation/variolation.

What a delightful bit of historical knowledge: I love that it shows “my” Ottomans in a favorable light, and I love that it was the courage and ingenuity of a woman that brought the practice West.

Its a lovely start to my week – happy Monday to you all🙂

3 Responses to “a pox on you: Ottomans and the cure for smallpox”

  1. LOLWaukee said

    Thank you for enlightening my own day! Love learning new and surprising unusual facts!

  2. Kheireddine said

    My great grandfather’s fatalism facing cholera in 1875:
    http://www.google.com/books?id=1wrTojHRv_EC&pg=PA445&dq=IBRAHIM+AHDAB&lr=&as_brr=3&hl=en

  3. intlxpatr said

    I love this! What great information!

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