Catherine the Great advocated for smallpox vaccination in auction letter

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A letter due to be auctioned this week shows that Sovereign Catherine the Great was one of the early advocates of inoculation against the disease.
The letter provides insight into the Empress’s concern over the smallpox epidemic, which was ravaging Europe at the time. In correspondence with a Russian army officer dated April 20, 1787, she wrote about the urgency of protecting the general population against smallpox using a technique now considered a precursor to vaccination.

“Count Pyotr Aleksandrovich, among the other tasks of the welfare councils in the provinces entrusted to you, one of the most important should be the introduction of vaccination against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great damage, especially among ordinary people, “Catherine wrote, according to a translation from London-based auction house MacDougall’s.

“Such inoculation should be common everywhere, and it is now all the more convenient as there are doctors or paramedics in almost all districts, and it does not involve enormous expense.”

A 1787 letter written by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia about a smallpox vaccination is due to be auctioned on Wednesday. Credit: Gavriil Grigorov / TASS / Getty Images

The letter, along with a portrait of Catherine by Russian artist Dmitry Levitsky, goes on sale Wednesday. Together, the items are estimated to be worth between £ 800,000 and £ 1,200,000, or around $ 1 million to $ 1.6 million.

Catherine would be the first person in Russia to be vaccinated against smallpox, in a procedure that took place nearly 20 years before concerns expressed in the 1787 letter. The monarch had long feared the disease, and after a member of the Russian nobility succumbed to the disease, she sought the services of an English doctor who had successfully vaccinated the British elite, according to a 1984 article in what was then the Bristol Medico-Journal of Surgery.
The inoculation method at the time, known as variolation, would be considered quite dangerous by today’s standards. This involved taking material from the pustules of a patient infected with smallpox and inserting it into an incision in another person’s arm – deliberately infecting them with a mild form of the disease. The procedure was not without risks – around 2% of people vaccinated this way died of the disease, but it was adopted across Europe because the death rate from natural smallpox was even higher.

Catherine was aware of the dangers. When Dr Thomas Dimsdale was invited to St. Petersburg to vaccinate her, she had prepared a car for him so that he could escape the country without retaliation from his subjects if the procedure failed. Still, she was determined to continue.

“How could I introduce smallpox vaccination without setting a personal example? She wrote in a separate letter to the Prussian King Frederick the Great. “I began to study the subject … Should I remain in real danger, along with thousands of people, throughout my life, or should I prefer less danger, very brief, and thus save a lot of people ? I thought that by choosing the latter, I was choosing the best course. ”

Catherine successfully recovered from her smallpox infection and quickly had her son and heir to the throne vaccinated. The news was celebrated in November 1768.

“We now have only two topics of conversation: the first is the (Russian-Turkish) war and the second is vaccination,” Catherine wrote to an ambassador in Britain. “Starting with me and my son, who is also recovering, there is no noble house in which there are not several people vaccinated, and many regret having had smallpox naturally and therefore cannot be in fashion.”

But the victories would prove to be premature. Although smallpox was introduced throughout Russia in the years following Catherine’s procedure, it failed to spread significantly – two decades later, she still feared that too few people did. have been vaccinated against the disease.


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