Shropshire Star

Monument honour for ‘one of the overlooked heroines in the history of medicine’

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu helped pave the way for Edward Jenner’s vaccine work

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu honoured

One of the “overlooked heroines in the history of medicine” has been honoured 300 years after she introduced smallpox inoculation to Britain with the upgrading of her monument.

The Obelisk to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in Wentworth Castle Gardens, South Yorkshire, has been upgraded to Grade II* by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England.

Lady Mary’s work in the early 1720s saved many from one of the world’s deadliest diseases and, despite being largely overlooked by history, her achievements helped pave the way for Edward Jenner’s vaccine 75 years later, Historic England said.

Her monument in the National Trust-owned gardens, near Barnsley, is commonly known as the Sun Monument, and was built in the early to mid 1700s, probably by William Wentworth, second Earl of Strafford.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu honoured
The Sun Monument at Wentworth Castle Gardens, Yorkshire (Historic England Archive/PA)

The aristocrat met Lady Mary in Italy as a young man and it is possible that he had been inoculated as a child, as his parents were her neighbours in their London house in Twickenham, according to Historic England.

The obelisk, which is highly unusual as it is dedicated to a woman who was neither royalty nor a family member, was originally listed at Grade II in 1968 but has now been elevated to among the top 10% of England’s most important historic sites to reflect the significance of Lady Mary’s contribution.

While living in Turkey as the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Royal Court, Lady Mary observed the local method of inoculating against smallpox, which involved scratching the skin and introducing a small amount of the virus taken from the pus of someone with a mild form of the disease.

This, in turn, then provoked a mild form of smallpox, leaving lasting immunity, Historic England said.

The disease had killed several of Lady Mary’s own relatives, including her brother, and she herself had nearly died of it.

After looking into the practice with Charles Maitland, surgeon to the British embassy in Constantinople, she organised for the procedure to be carried out on her five-year-old son by a skilled local woman.

Although she was not the first Western European to have a child inoculated while living in Turkey, she was the first to bring the practice back to Britain.

During a smallpox epidemic in 1721, Lady Mary persuaded Maitland to inoculate her daughter. She then used her daughter’s immunity to promote inoculation, which rapidly gained popularity.

In 1722, two of King George I’s granddaughters were treated.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu honoured
The Sun Monument to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (Andrew Butler/National Trust/PA)

Sarah Charlesworth, listing team leader for the North, said: “Lady Mary is one of the overlooked heroines in the history of medicine.

“By introducing inoculation to Britain and championing the practice, she helped to save many lives three quarters of a century before Edward Jenner first tested his smallpox vaccine.”

Torri Crapper, general manager for the National Trust at Wentworth Castle Garden said: “We’re delighted that the Sun Monument has received this recognition.

“Sitting within South Yorkshire’s only Grade I listed parkland, it’s such a prominent feature in the landscape.

“Wentworth Castle Gardens is home to no fewer than 26 listed buildings and monuments, each of them with a different tale to tell.

“Lady Mary’s story is such an important part of history that deserves to be told, and that we are proud to share it with our visitors.”

The public is being invited to help celebrate the monument through the Missing Pieces Project.

Pictures, stories and scanned documents relating to the monument can be added through the National Heritage List for England.

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