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Vaccination for the Empress

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Vaccination for the Empress

04.12.2021

Editor’s office of the Russkiy Mir portal

MacDougall's Auction House, the British auction house specialising in Russian Russian art, has held another important auction in London on December 1. There were more than 40 lots such as items of Russian art and history. The letter from Catherine the Great on the benefits of vaccination against smallpox is particularly noteworthy. The unique document was sold for almost 1 mln. pounds. Let's take this opportunity to recall the story of how the empress had promoted vaccination in Russia.

Portrait of the Empress Catherine the Great by Dmitry Levitsky, around 1793

The letter in question was addressed to Count Piotr Aleksandrovich Rumiantsev. The empress explained how to arrange vaccination against smallpox at the state level. "This is the first known document about Russia's first vaccination campaign," reports Forbes. The portrait of Catherine the Great by Dmitry Levitsky is also to be sold together with the letter, so the cost of the lot is rather significant - it is estimated to be 0.8 to 1.2 million dollars.

The letter was written during a trip to Crimea. The empress stated that the vaccination of the people was one of the most important affairs of the state. In her opinion, "especially the common people can be greatly harmed" without mass vaccination.

Although nowadays smallpox is practically eliminated (the last case of smallpox in the world was recorded back in 1977), it was a real scourge of humanity in the time of Catherine the Great. This disease had a mortality rate of 3 to 10%, but in some cases, it could reach 75% and even 100%. For example, in the second half of the XVIII century smallpox killed about 300 thousand people in Sweden. It was about 15% of the population.

As to many survivors, smallpox left terrible scars on their bodies and disfigured their faces. And the disease struck everyone regardless of rank. The Queen Mary II of England and Ireland died of smallpox in 1694, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I died in 1711. The disease took the French king Louis XV, who ruled for nearly 60 years, to his grave in 1774. Smallpox was the reason that Emperor Peter II 1730, died at a very young age. The heir to the Russian crown, Peter III, Catherine the Great's future husband, was also struck by the disease that left pocks on his body and face. The above facts were reported by the Istorik magazine.

It goes without saying that Catherine herself was afraid of contracting smallpox and was afraid for her son, little Paul. "I was accustomed from childhood to have a fear of smallpox, and it required a lot of effort from me to reduce this fear in adulthood; I saw the aforementioned disease in the slightest ailment that befell me. During the spring and the past summer, when this disease caused great devastation, I hid from house to house and moved away from the city for five whole months, not wishing to expose my son or myself to danger. I was so overwhelmed by the situation filled with such cowardice, that I considered it to be a weakness not to be able to get out of it," she wrote in a letter to King Frederick II of Prussia.

But it was the age of the Enlightenment, and Europe already had a recipe for dealing with the disease. They were not able to cure it, but they already knew how to prevent infection. This method was seen in Istanbul and involved variolation. Several incisions were made on a patient's arm, after which the smallpox aspirate of a sick person was placed there. At the height of the epidemic that swept Russia and Europe in 1768, the Empress decided to have a vaccination in order to set an example for all her subjects. "At last, I thought that the best thing would be to set myself an example that could be useful to the people... I wrote to England to get a vaccinator from there," she noted in a letter to Voltaire. It must be said that this step was really quite a decisive move - although the mortality rate from vaccination was 20 times less than from the disease, still on average 2 people out of 100 vaccinated one died (for comparison, now the mortality rate from coronavirus is about 3%).

Thomas Dimsdale (1712 – 1800)

A well-known English doctor, Thomas Dimsdale, was invited to St. Petersburgю. He was famous for the fact that almost no one died from his vaccinations. In Russia, the Englishman immediately began his practice. The first experiments were aimed at young people. Vaccinations were first given to pupils of the Naval Cadet Corps, then to students of the Society of Noble Maidens and the school at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. At the same time, the state work was going on - information about smallpox and vaccinations against it was collected. At the request of Catherine the great the renowned physician Johannes Jenisch wrote A Brief History and Description of the Best Way to Vaccinate against Smallpox, which was published in German, Russian, and French.

When it became clear that the vaccination was safe, the empress finally decided on the operation. A simple peasant boy, Alexander Markov, who already had signs of smallpox, was chosen to do the hand-to-hand vaccination. On October 12, 1768, at night, he was brought to the Winter Palace in a closed carriage. He was taken in through a secret passage - since the outcome was unknown, the Empress concealed her decision even from her close circle. "Vaccination of smallpox was soon completed; after that my son went with the child to the Volfovskiy House and informed the persons there, who were very anxious to know where we were, that smallpox had been inoculated by me in the house of a nobleman," wrote Dimsdale in his memoirs.

It was not until the fifth day when it was clear that the vaccination had been successful, that the Empress informed the court of what had happened. Soon after his mother, Paul was vaccinated as well.

The medal "In memory of the introduction of smallpox vaccination in Russia", October 12, 1768. Photo credit: Istorik.RF

The event was held with fanfare: the Senate passed a decree that was proclaimed with all possible solemnity. The Empress and the heir were thanked "for the great and famous feat for the sake of the wellbeing of their subjects by vaccinating smallpox"; a special holiday was established on November 21 and a medal was minted in honor of this event.

Markov-Ospenny family crest

Catherine's example was soon followed by many courtiers but the Empress did not stop there. Vaccinations became compulsory for students in state educational institutions. And a reward of one silver ruble for each child vaccinated was established in order to encourage poor parents to vaccinate their children with smallpox. Special centers where smallpox was inoculated - smallpox houses - were opened in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Irkutsk, and some other large cities.

As to Alexander Markov who the ruler of Russia was inoculated from, the boy safely survived, was granted a noble title, and received the surname Ospenny (smallpox in Russian) and a special family crest that depicted a hand with a smallpox boil holding a rose.

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