Spreading Smallpox Inoculation to Impress Voltaire

(p. A15) Dimsdale had been summoned by Catherine the Great to inoculate not only the empress herself but also her 13-year-old heir, the Grand Duke Paul.

. . .

As Lucy Ward dramatically relates in “The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus,” Catherine’s invitation was a high-stakes affair, a testament to Dimsdale’s writings on the methodology of smallpox inoculation and his reputation for solicitous care. His Quaker upbringing had encouraged a brand of outcome- rather than ego-led practice.

. . .

As devastating as smallpox was, for the empress herself and the grand duke who would succeed her to personally undergo inoculation was a risk to both patient and doctor. On the success side stood immunity from the disease, an almost holy example for Catherine’s people, and as-yet-untold riches for her nervous doctor. On the other side, not only the fact that all Russia would refuse the treatment if their “Little Mother” died, but also a disaster for Dimsdale and the son who had accompanied him. Geopolitics came into play too—if things went wrong, some would interpret it as a foreign assassination.

. . .

With a happy result for her and her less-robust son, Catherine sets about publicizing the success. Dimsdale receives the equivalent of more than $20 million and a barony. Bronze medals are cast of Catherine’s profile, reading “She herself set an example.” It helps that Catherine was competitive beyond reason: “we have inoculated more people in a month than were inoculated in Vienna in eight,” she wrote to Voltaire, determined to beat Empress Maria Theresa’s efforts.

For the full review, see:

Catherine Ostler. “BOOKSHELF; Inoculate Conception.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, June 23, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated June 22, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Empress and the English Doctor’ Review: Inoculate Conception.”)

The book under review is:

Ward, Lucy. The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus. London, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2022.

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