March is halfway over, and I still haven’t posted anything to Women’s History Month. Shame on me! The theme this year is Providing Healing, Promoting Hope. It could not be more perfect. The universe directed me to launch A Girl with a Knife with such fortunate timing.
A Girl with a Knife spotlights real women in history who contributed to early medicine, before women could officially work as doctors or nurses. The story that particularly touched my heart was of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 - 1762). Towards the end of the draft number who knows what, when I thought I’m done with writing, I reread Save the Cat Writes A Novel. If you ever want to write a novel, I highly recommend this book. As I read, I realized that I need to bring a character back from the beginning of the book to remind Ella of something important. The best choice was her mother, but alas she was dead. The book had a suggestion: a lost letter.
I wanted Ella’s mother to inspire her daughter with a story revealed in that letter. I played with ideas: she published a book; she traveled somewhere dangerous; she patented an invention. I decided to look into inventions patented around that time, but nothing caught my eye. I broadened my search to important discoveries of the century and clicked on Edward Jenner and the smallpox vaccine, with a vague idea to make her his assistant. And then I stumbled on the story of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, which shocked me for two reasons: it was perfect for the book, and, despite reading ten books on 19th-century medicine, I’ve never seen this name before. Like many other incredible women in history, she received practically no credit or long-lasting fame. All recognition went to the male physician Edward Jenner, whose name I knew since high school.
Without further delay, I present to you Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a woman ahead of her time, and an embodiment of a historical Girl on Adventure. A daughter of a duke, she grew up to be a writer and a witty poet, improper pursuits for a lady. Then she rejected her father’s choice of a husband and eloped with a rising politician. She won her place in the selective London society when a tragedy struck: Mary became ill with smallpox. The disease killed a third of its victims and left the survivors with facial scars and in some cases, blindness. Mary avoided the latter, but the scars remained for life.
What a surprise it must have been for her, when she arrived at Constantinople a year later with her son, accompanying her husband in a diplomatic mission, and learned that the locals have a way of preventing smallpox. Why didn’t anyone in Britain know what uneducated Turkish women learned from each other? Well, you can guess why. There’s nothing peasant women could teach the great British medical minds. The procedure was crude, done with a large needle and a nut-shell filled with pus from mild smallpox blisters. Mary had her son inoculated, and they soon returned to Britain.
Mary was ready to save her country from smallpox, but predictably, notable men rebuffed the idea. And here Mary showed a brilliant instinct for project management: she found and excellent sponsor; someone every successful project needs. It happened to be royalty: Caroline, the Princess of Wales.
I want to be in the room where it happened, as the song goes. How did Mary convince the princess? “Your Highness, I’m not a doctor, women would not be doctors for another century, but I insist you should ask your surgeon to make a small cut in your skin and have some smallpox pus get inside it.” (my own interpretation.) Amazingly, the princess agreed to try this on lab rats, no, excuse me, prisoners and orphans. When subjects of the experiment survived and didn’t develop smallpox, the Princess allowed inoculations on herself and her children in front of a crowd. Anything the Princess did became a fashion, and other royals and near royals followed suit, including Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (Netflix series Catherine shows this in the second season).
In the novel, the lost letter reveals that Ella’s mother learned the technique Mary advocated and visited the poor houses and orphanages to inoculate those who were willing. She wrote these words for Ella: Men often erase women’s names from history. We cannot let them do that! If you ever do something great, let everyone know what a woman can do.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, we celebrate your incredible intelligence, resilience, and courage. You made a monumental step in the fight against smallpox; the only disease to this day completely eradicated by vaccines. In my mind, you are wearing one of your gorgeous gowns and taking a bow to the applause of women and men.