Today, we have an excerpt from The Empress and the English Doctor by Lucy Ward, an account of how Catherine the Great worked to combat the smallpox epidemic that was ravaging not only Russia but most of Europe. Here’s the synopsis:
A killer virus… an all-powerful Empress… an encounter cloaked in secrecy… the astonishing true story.
Within living memory, smallpox was a dreaded disease. Over human history it has killed untold millions. Back in the eighteenth century, as epidemics swept Europe, the first rumours emerged of an effective treatment: a mysterious method called inoculation.
But a key problem remained: convincing people to accept the preventative remedy, the forerunner of vaccination. Arguments raged over risks and benefits, and public resistance ran high. As smallpox ravaged her empire and threatened her court, Catherine the Great took the momentous decision to summon the Quaker physician Thomas Dimsdale to St Petersburg to carry out a secret mission that would transform both their lives. Lucy Ward expertly unveils the extraordinary story of Enlightenment ideals, female leadership and the fight to promote science over superstition.
On with the excerpt!
The Speckled Monster
‘The most terrible of all the ministers of death’
Thomas Babington Macaulay
This is the story of an encounter of a most intimate kind. But it is not a love story; at least, not in the conventional sense. The connection between the English physician Thomas Dimsdale and Catherine the Great of Russia was not a romantic one, but it was in its own way more deeply physical – and more dangerous – than the sexual liaisons that have too often overshadowed her legacy. Her relationship with the doctor, which lasted until her death aged sixty-seven, was more significant than the fleeting dalliances with some of her lovers. It protected her own life, that of her son and heir, and, later, two of her grandsons, and launched a programme of inoculation across her vast empire.
Together, both the Empress and her doctor also risked their lives: she through the operation itself, though she had carefully weighed the odds, and he through the likely dire consequences if the worst happened. The pair had discussed their secret plan in detail beforehand, sometimes with the physician sitting on his patient’s ornate bed with her lover, Count Grigory Orlov, beside them. As summer ended and the colder days of autumn drew in, a bond of respect had developed that would last a lifetime. The doctor was anxious and the Empress determined, but the two were of one mind.
The inoculation of the Empress of Russia, once it was made known, became famous throughout the world: reported in newspapers in America, remarked on in London coffee houses, celebrated in French and German poetry. While other European royal houses, led by Britain’s Georgian kings, had inoculated their children, Catherine II was the only reigning monarch to undergo the procedure – an act of courage that has since been all but forgotten. She did her best to publicise her action for many reasons, but her goal was to demonstrate, using her own body, the most powerful means then available to fight the greatest scourge of the eighteenth century: smallpox. Her aim was to challenge prejudice and to promote science.
The Empress and her doctor shared a common purpose, but their connection was in many ways a meeting of opposites. Catherine, ruler of Russia for six years by 1768, had not only seized the crown by force from her unstable husband Peter III but had retained it aft er his assassination by her allies a few days later. Bold, charismatic and politically highly astute, the 39-year-old Empress presided over a glittering, pleasure-loving St Petersburg court. Her style was informal, playful even, but her intellect was quick and curious. ‘I am one of those people who love the why of things,’ she would write to the journalist Baron Friedrich Grimm, one of her many correspondents among Europe’s intellectual elite.
Born a minor German princess and locked early into a strategic marriage to the heir to the Russian throne, Catherine had swiftly understood the diplomatic value of display. She had used her baptism into the Orthodox faith and her theatrical coronation as tools to promote her love for her adoptive country, and harnessed the iconography of state portraits to present her unique version of female power. By the time of Thomas’s arrival, even Russia’s magisterial geography could not contain the Empress’s ambitions. She prepared for a territory-grabbing war with Turkey to the south while turning west to the grand powers of Enlightenment Europe in search of artistic and cultural inspiration and the latest in philosophical and scientific thought.
While Catherine was every inch the public woman, Thomas Dimsdale, a Quaker-born physician living in a substantial farmhouse just outside the English market town of Hertford, was fundamentally a private man. Plainly dressed in a dark suit and tightly curled doctor’s wig, the father of seven came from a medical family. He had worked as a surgeon and army doctor before turning his mind to the emerging technology of smallpox inoculation. Alongside his lucrative medical practice in Hertfordshire, London and beyond, Thomas had developed the latest and most effective techniques for the preventative procedure, publishing them in a treatise that had propelled him to international prominence. Despite his success, personal fame was not his ambition. He meticulously experimented, recorded and analysed his findings, careful not to take any risks that might harm his many patients, or jeopardise the precious reputation of inoculation.
Both Empress and doctor wrote about their encounter: putting the inoculation on the record, in all its stark physicality, was critical to their shared mission of promoting the procedure. It was forgotten partly because others took control of Catherine’s history, choosing aft er her death to depict her body as a weapon of lascivious desire rather than a symbol of pioneering medical practice.
But the event has also vanished because inoculation – a term drawn from the Latin inoculare, meaning to engraft a new bud or ‘eye’ from one plant to another – is itself almost forgotten. New discoveries have obscured a ‘missing century’ in the history of immunisation, whose remarkable advances paved the way for perhaps the most important medical technique known to humanity: vaccination.
Lucy Ward’s The Empress and the English Doctor is out now, published by Oneworld Publications in the UK.