Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was wife of the ambassador to Istanbul in the early part of the 18thcentury and gained the favor of the sultan to the extent that she was allowed into the oda, the harem room, a place no western woman had ever been. She learned about variolation, a form of inoculation using material from a mild case of small pox, and had her children inoculated. She also convinced some members of the Royal Family to do the same. She was vilified by the London medical establishment for this “Oriental process” and church leaders thought her to be flouting God’s will.

The controversy behind vaccination has flared again, but for much different reasons. A doctor writing in the British medical journal, The Lancet, asserted that many children suffered side affects from many childhood vaccinations, the principle side affect being autism. The article was retracted when the doctor admitted to falsifying evidence in his article, but the controversy that he created lives on. Few medical professionals now suggest not vaccinating save for in some children whose immune systems may already be compromised.

Lady Montagu is known for the letters she sent from Istanbul and is thought to have composed a number of Alexander Pope’s alexandrines. Pope was smitten by the lady, but he misinterpreted her friendship and when he professed his love, she laughed, earning his everlasting enmity. As she grew older, she exiled herself, eventually divorcing her husband and to live an hermetic life in France and Italy. She came home to live with her daughter for one year before dying. Her progressivism is positively refreshing in an age that was attempting to free itself from prejudice and suspicion. We need more like her today.