Thursday, March 08, 2007

Mural Monuments and Smallpox

Among the great features of English churches are the mural monuments, the often beautifully sculpted memorial plaques that line the walls of most old churches. The monuments often indicate that the person memorialized is interred nearby, but often the plaques commemorate someone who is buried elsewhere. Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey is full of this latter kind of mural monument (for example, the memorial to William Shakespeare, who is actually buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon).

In Bath Abbey, Clara discovered a memorial to someone named Manley Power. Bath Abbey was crammed with mural monuments—one indication of the wealth of the inhabitants of Bath in the eighteenth century. I love mural monuments for the small glimpses they provide of otherwise unknown or little-known lives. In Lichfield Cathedral, fairly easy to miss just inside the visitor's entrance, is this memorial to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu—buried elsewhere, but important to the woman who erected the monument (click photo to enlarge for more detail).

Sacred to the Memory
The Right Honorable
Who happily introduced from Turkey
into this country
The Salutary Art
Of inoculating the Small-Pox.
Convinc'd of its Efficacy
She first tried it with Success
On her own Children
And then recommended the practice of it
To her fellow-Citizens.
Then by her Example and Advice
We have soften'd the Virulence
And escaped the danger of this malignant Disease.
To perpetuate the Memory of such Benevolence,
And express her Gratitude
For the benefit She herself has receiv'd
From the alleviating Art,
This Monument is rerected
And Daughter of Sir JOHN WROTTESLEY Baronet

We know about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)—how she accompanied her husband to Turkey when he served there as ambassador, and how she learned from the Turks about inoculating for small pox. We know about her efforts, half a century before Edward Jenner,* to educate the English about inoculation. We also know of her as a famous letter writer and a subject of Alexander Pope's satire. But I can find nothing about Henrietta Inge other than what the memorial tells us, and that her husband was a son of the Inge family which held the manor in Thorpe Constantine, Staffs., and that she came from one of the great families of Staffordshire, the Wrottesleys. But what personal experience led her to express such extravagant gratitude? We know that smallpox was one of the scourges of eighteenth-century England, and that there were periodic outbreaks of it in Staffordshire. Samuel Johnson contracted it as a child, and his face was left with permanent disfiguring pock marks. Another prominent Staffordshire man, Josiah Wedgewood (Charles Darwin's other grandfather), also suffered from smallpox as a child. Erasmus Darwin, as a physicial in Lichfield, must have seen many cases of it.

A Turkish postage stamp (1967), showing inoculation for smallpox. The procedure is also known as variolation, and Lady Wortley Montagu called it "ingrafting."

The monument in Lichfield Cathedral was erected in 1789. In the previous decade, a devastating smallpox epidemic had swept through America, coinciding with the Revolutionary War. That story is told by Elizabeth Anne Fenn in Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782. The effects of that epidemic were mitigated by a program of inoculation carried out by George Washington, who as a young man had been exposed to smallpox on a visit to the Caribbean, and who had learned about inoculation for smallpox. Inoculation meant that an incision was made in a healthy patient and a small amount of live smallpox (in the form of pus from an infected person) was introduced into the wound to build up an immunity. A hospital for smallpox inoculation had been in existence in Virginia since 1767, and its work was as controversial as Lady Wortley Montagu's earlier efforts were in London. Most people were afraid that inoculation—deliberate exposure to smallpox—would spread the disease rather than prevent it. And it was true that, if an adequate period of quarantine wasn't observed after the inoculation, the disease could be spread.

One of the most famous literary cases of smallpox is probably that of Esther Summerson, in Charles Dickens' Bleak House. She is left permanently scarred by the disease. In the eighteenth-century, women who had been scarred by smallpox sometimes resorted to black patches to cover the most prominent pock marks. The picture at left is a detail from the series of paintings The Rake's Progress, by William Hogarth (now part of a major Hogarth exhibit at the Tate Britain in London, through the end of April). This woman, a harlot who would have been exposed to numerous diseases, has several such patches on her face.

*Dr. Edward Jenner's discovery was not inoculation, but vaccination: using the related cowpox virus instead of smallpox to produce immunity.

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