Letter From Catherine the Nice Reveals Her Help for Inoculations

As smallpox outbreaks ravaged communities within the 18th century, one of many first individuals in Russia to embrace a precursor to vaccines was Catherine the Nice, the empress famed for selling the newest data within the arts and sciences from her throne.

Catherine’s help for an early type of inoculation is captured in a letter to be offered at public sale in London on Wednesday. In it, she instructs a governor-general to make sure that a smallpox prevention methodology referred to as variolation was available in his province.

In keeping with a translation of the letter supplied by the public sale home, Catherine, like many world leaders at present, sought widespread safety in opposition to an infectious illness that was devastating her empire. “Such inoculation ought to be widespread in every single place,” she wrote, “and it’s now all of the extra handy, since there are docs or medical attendants in almost all districts, and it doesn’t name for large expenditure.”

MacDougall’s, an public sale home in London that focuses on Russian artwork, is auctioning the letter together with a portrait of Catherine by Dmitry Levitsky. Within the portrait, the empress wears a small crown and an ermine-lined cloak.

The letter is dated April 20, 1787, and addressed to a Russian army officer, Piotr Aleksandrovich Rumiantsev, who was known as Count Zadunaysky. Catherine wrote in the letter that one of Rumiantsev’s most important duties “should be the introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great harm, especially among the ordinary people.”

Catherine and her son Pavel Petrovich were inoculated nearly two decades earlier, in 1768.

At the time, people were inoculated using variolation, the practice of exposing people to material from an infected pustule of a patient with smallpox. The process was used for hundreds of years in India and China before being adopted in Europe. Enslaved people from Africa introduced the treatment in the United States. It is similar to, but distinct from, vaccination, which uses a less harmful version of a virus.

Many people were wary of the practice, which sometimes led to deaths or outbreaks of a mild form of smallpox.

These concerns prompted Catherine to show her support for it.

Lynne Hartnett, an associate professor of history at Villanova University, said Catherine was terrified of smallpox, which had infected her husband and killed the fiancée of one of her closest advisers.

She invited an English physician, Thomas Dimsdale, to St. Petersburg to inoculate her, her son and members of her court. “She was doing it as a way to show the Russian people that it was safe and it could keep this disease at bay,” Professor Hartnett said.

Catherine provided Dimsdale with a carriage and protection in case she died and he needed an urgent route out of Russia. Instead, she recovered from the inoculation and a holiday was declared to celebrate the event.

Afterward, Catherine wrote to her ambassador in Britain, Count Ivan Grigorievuch Chernyshev: “Starting with me and my son, who is also recovering, there is no noble house in which there are not several vaccinated persons, and many regret that they had smallpox naturally and so cannot be fashionable.”

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