For anyone intent on retrieving history’s forgotten women, it’s very annoying to hear Jenner name-checked time and again as the inventor of vaccine, as if the idea sprang fully formed from his head. Do the news outlets not know about, or are they choosing to ignore, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu?
From childhood, she had been determined to plough her own furrow, and as an adult she took matters in to her own hands when she wisely, IMHO, rejected her father’s anointed suitor, Clotworthy Skeffington, and eloped with Sir Edward Wortley Montagu: ‘I shall come to you with only a nightgown and a petticoat, and that is all you will get with me.’
In 1716, Sir Edward was appointed ambassador to Constantinople, and Lady Mary’s colourful letters home provide a vivid portrait of life in the Ottoman Empire. It was during this period that she witnessed the practice of inoculation, describing in a letter to a friend how the pus from a mild smallpox blister was introduced into the scratched skin on the arm or leg of an uninfected person , who would then be spared a severe case of smallpox.
This practice struck a chord with Lady Mary, who before her marriage had suffered a serious case of smallpox that had left her disfigured. She lost no time in getting her small son inoculated.
What happened next? You probably won’t be surprised to hear that when she tried to promote the practice on her return to London she hit a brick wall: the medical gammons of the day would have no truck with dodgy foreign folk customs. Nevertheless, many of Lady Mary’s aristocratic friends, including the Princess of Wales, had their children inoculated.
Jenner’s achievement, decades later, was to improve on this technique, using pus from cowpox rather smallpox.
Fast forward to 2020, widespread woe, and a lockdown that in many cases has fostered an immense flowering of creativity. Friend of damesnet Steph and her partner Ray repurposed Dolly Parton’s hit ‘Jolene’ as a paean to ‘Vaccine’ and devised a clever animation to go with it. Days later, in an extraordinary demonstration of serendipity, it was announced that Dolly Parton had sponsored Moderna’s vaccine research to the tune of $1m.
If I had anything to do with it, she would be canonised as St Dolly (wouldn’t she make a great stained-glass window?) and wouldn’t even have to die to achieve that status. Like Marcus Rashford, she is someone who experienced deprivation growing up and has not lost touch with how that feels.
Children in the UK have also benefitted from the Dollywood Foundation Literacy Programme (great though this is, it’s every bit as shaming as receiving food support from UNICEF). Parton has also supported AIDS and cancer research and wildlife. Though not, on the face of it, your traditional feminist icon, there’s no denying she is an international treasure.
Last but certainly not least, we have Dr Sarah Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology at Oxford, the project lead for for the development of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine. I can’t help but perceive a correlation between having a woman at the helm and the sheer practicality of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine, which can be stored in a domestic fridge, unlike the Pfizer one.* I also note that her three children are triplets, and when they were born her husband gave up his career to look after them – two role models for the price of one.
- There is a ‘queen behind the scenes’ associated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines: forty years of research in Hungary by Professor Katalin Kariko on mRNA molecules paved the way for them.